Working as the Head of Digital Strategy at a pioneering institution in the realm of digital examinations. Acknowledging recent announcements regarding the adoption of digital examinations for examination boards in the UK, I wanted to share our experiences, insights, and steadfast support for this transformative direction. With the caveat that this is going to be extremely challenging for many schools to achieve in the timeframe given, and is only going to be fair if it is genuinely available and achievable for all students.
Examination Boards are to be commended on their foresight in recognising the need for examinations to evolve in step with the changing educational landscape and technological advancements. The emphasis on an evidence-based approach, coupled with the aspiration to improve inclusivity and accessibility, particularly resonates with our ethos here at Queen Anne's School .
Our own experience with digital assessments began in 2018, declared as student’s ‘normal way of working’. As students made the shift to working predominantly on laptops and touchscreen/stylus devices, we decided to embrace this change not only for public examinations but also for our internal assessments. The outcomes have mirrored exam board expectations: digital is not just the next step, but a necessary one. Being able to type examinations means that our students are being assessed in the same way they are working day to day, in class. Many now type quicker than they write, therefore handwritten examinations are a disadvantage to our students. They can efficiently organise, review, and refine their answers, and the days of battling hand cramp during exams are behind them. This doesn't mean that they don't face other challenges brought about by the use of a computer! Furthermore, this digital proficiency prepares them for a world where such skills are becoming essential.
A standout moment for us was recognising the profound change digital examinations brought for our SEND students. In 2019, with JCQ's approval, we incorporated Microsoft's Immersive Reader for those who were eligible. Gone were the days where students suffered the discomfort of an unfamiliar person reading out loud to them. Now, using headphones, they can sit with their peers, experiencing exams in a calmer, more focused manner. This tool has now expanded beyond the exam room, being used in regular lessons and at home, enhancing their overall learning experience. As a technology, this is available for any student who is entitled to a reader in any school.
However, the journey to digital examinations isn't without challenges. The financial aspects can be daunting. Providing every student with the appropriate device that is suitable for taking digital examinations is, and will be, extremely expensive. Devices, like the cost-effective Chromebook, have been readily adopted by many schools but these require an internet connection to function. Will such a device be suitable for the new examinations, or will schools be left with redundant devices which are no longer fit for purpose? Examination boards need to carefully consider the ability for all schools to afford the technology required. Furthermore, the frequent updates and technical specifications demanded by such devices necessitate robust IT support services. Beyond the mere provision of devices, schools must ensure they have standby equipment and trained staff at the ready to address any sudden glitches or malfunctions during examinations. Such as those experienced in the recent Oxford University online assessments in October – albeit that these turned out to be issues at the University server side, having on-hand IT support is necessary to help resolve such situations. This kind of instant troubleshooting capability means an investment not only in technology but also in personnel and training.
Physical infrastructure is another hurdle. Schools must possess rooms large enough to comfortably host PCs or laptops, all equipped with reliable charging facilities. Ensuring that there are spare devices on hand as backups adds another layer of complexity and cost. It’s not merely about having the devices; it's about creating an environment where these devices can be used seamlessly and effectively.
It is important to note the disparity in funding across schools. While independent schools like ours may navigate these waters more easily due to flexible budgets, state schools, catering to larger numbers, might struggle. Their already strained resources might find it challenging to accommodate such expansive technological changes. If not adequately supported, this could lead to disparities in the examination experience between students of state and independent schools, potentially putting some students at a disadvantage.
It is imperative to note that the real value of digital integration shines when students can access these devices not just for examination purposes but as an integral part of their daily learning experience. The continuous use fosters digital fluency, empowering students to harness technology's full potential and making them ready for a world that's increasingly tech-driven. However, for a just and effective national implementation of digital exams, these disparities must be acknowledged and addressed. Every student, irrespective of their school's funding model, deserves a level playing field in the digital examination landscape.