…the CEO of a public exam board is apolitical on the subject of public exams. But that’s not to say we avoid the political arena. Arguably, it’s never been more important to engage very directly with the folk who are arguing about the future of assessment from a policy perspective.

So I sat on panels at the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Party conferences this year - and found one particular theme intriguingly common to all.

In different ways, for differing reasons, politicos generally agree that it’s time we took a good hard look at the opportunities for delivering at least some of our exams online. Wouldn’t it have been easier, heading into summer 2021, if we’d had the fallback option of students doing an English and maths paper or two on screen?

I don’t sense that anyone especially wants to swing wholesale from pen and paper to keyboard. And anyway, as our blog this week on the experience in Finland illustrates, none of this happens in one sudden sweep. It will take a few years to implement even a partial shift.  

But also take a look at what’s been happening in New Zealand over the last few years:  tangible progress is being made, while engaging with the realities of laptops that occasionally malfunction and busy schools that don’t always have the time and resources immediately to focus on switching to online exams. 

Maybe because it has grasped those realities, New Zealand seems to be making un-showy but steady progress.

Why does it take time, you might wonder? Well, it’s not mainly the platform tech. Delivering exam style assessments on screen is already wholly possible. True, not all question types can be ported directly from existing papers. But adaptations are comfortably achievable, and in many cases the digital solution creates more interesting assessment opportunities - tests that respond to the candidates’ ability, for example.

Technologically, the bigger problems are whether schools all have the right kit and caboodle, and how would it feel running more than half a million high stakes tests simultaneously online?

Without being unduly complacent, the first problem is generally overstated. Schools either have or can be provided with a couple of hundred laptops, and few lack the necessary internet connectivity. Even where they do, solutions can be found to temporary struggles.

The scale issue is a bit different. Nothing simultaneous of that size has been done digitally in schools. But there are various platforms that have been used to deliver comparable numbers of tests at the same time without failure. In some respects, they are more secure than running paper-based exams.

No. The real issues are human, not technical. As Ofqual's research shows (see more in our blog), students are more open to the idea; teachers and head teachers are wary. That’s understandable. They’re concerned about fairness. The spectre of things going wrong. Managing an unfamiliar process.

On screen exams can be equally fair, if we ensure that all students get the same access (which they should have anyway), and that they know well in advance that their final exam in any given topic will be on screen, so they are able to prepare. That’s one reason you can’t simply launch into on-screen testing for all: students need time to adapt.

Teachers also need time to adapt - they need to experience pilots and practice runs to become confident in delivering online. The shortest time that would take is two years in any given subject, and that’s really too fast. Three, to be sure. And you wouldn’t do every paper in every subject at once. In fact, we may never drop paper tests altogether in my lifetime. Whatever we do in this arena, it should be spread over several years.

But be in no doubt. Moving to onscreen exams may be one of the best ways of diversifying assessment, creating opportunities for a broader approach to learning and better preparing students for the working world beyond.

Other countries that are moving more quickly will reap the gains earlier - gains such as greater flexibility, resilience, educational AI, system-improving data.

We should catch up. And then overtake. 

That’s why this is a theme AQi will be pursuing over the coming months, with some intent.