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Online exams may become the norm within a few years

Secondary Schools
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One of the UK`s largest exam boards has been intimating for a number of years it plans for all pupils to sit A-Level and GCSE exams online. This could mean an end to the traditional exam hall, those serried rows of isolated tables where pupils scribble out their answers in silence. Back in 2022 Ofqual (The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) announced that it was continuing to investigate the role of technology in assessments, and evaluating how this novel approach might be of long term benefit to students.

AQA, an awarding body in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, announced only a few months ago that by 2030 the exam for least one of the major subjects will be taken online. The reading and spoken parts of GCSE Polish and Italian may be the first subjects to fall under this change, a representative of the board claiming online assessments will `allow young people to use their digital skills.` For the moment paper-based exams are certainly valid, but `it`s time to widen the range of media we use,` and online exams are `truer to the digital world.`

Online exams would also be of benefit to many pupils with special educational needs, obviating any `handwriting bias.` A 2016 study conducted by the AQA found many examiners had difficulty reading pupils` handwriting, especially if their answers were written in blue or green ink. Today almost all exam papers are scanned electronically, and distributed to assessors. There are often difficulties however, as `very small or faint handwriting can be difficult to read and may lead to issues when examiners are awarding marks.`

Online exams would bypass these problems completely, and could virtually eliminate any errors made during marking, along with expediting the whole process. It may also be the case that many pupils will simply do better in their exams if they are carried out online. Digital exams are also a better representative of the online world, and so will help prepare pupils for the work environment they will soon be a part of. The change will permit the exams themselves to be broader in scope, giving them the potential to feature video clips, 3d mathematical objects, and audio. These features will enable students to be assessed in a more rigorous and comprehensive way.

The change would be good for the environment too - the current system requires 12 million exam papers to be distributed each summer, the disposal of which creates 600 tonnes of CO2, along with 3 tonnes of plastic packaging.

AQA conducted a poll, and found that 68% of students surveyed were positive with the move to online exams, and agreed that they would help prepare them for future employment. 63% of 11-18 year olds said they felt comfortable using a computer for more than an hour, while only 36% felt comfortable using a pen for an hour. 68% of parents said they felt that exams needed to move with the times. One student who took part in a pilot scheme of the digital exams went on to say that `I feel like it`s quicker to type my responses rather than write which gives me more time to develop more ideas.`

Colin Hughes, AQA`s chief Executive Officer, believes the move to online exams is an inevitable development, and one that will help students achieve grades representative of their true abilities, and said:
`Technology and change are two constants in education. After all, we went from quills to fountain pens to biros, and from scrolls to books. Moving to digital exams is the next step of this evolution`

`We cannot and should not change the way we conduct exams overnight. AQA has spent several years trialling and piloting digital exams and we will roll them out over many years. Our ambition is that students will sit a large-entry subject – that means, in our case, hundreds of thousands of simultaneous exams – digitally by 2030`

`In the meantime, we`ll continue to talk to teachers, school leaders and exams officers about how they want to make these changes. The benefits are substantial.`

One can only wonder if this is just another step towards an education system in which handwriting plays no part. That would surely be a great shame, as there is abundant evidence that the process of writing by hand is instructive in a way that typing isn`t. Professor Jane Medwell, a leading academic in the field of handwriting, points out that the process of forming letters helps children master phonetic awareness. There is also evidence that writing by hand aids memory retention, and helps children become more engaged with their learning.

83 days ago
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