I feel it’s important to first of all state that the following is not an advertisement for online assessments. There are positives and negatives to testing online – just as there are for hand-written testing – and this post is simply meant as a genuine comparison of the two.
Online testing, or ‘e-assessment’ as it is commonly known, is becoming increasingly prevalent – a by-product of our continuing dependability on computers. But is this really a good thing? And should we really be so hasty as to replace the old tried-and-tested methods of pen and paper assessment?
Upon initial inspection, online testing seems a revolutionary means of assessment. The advantages seem numerous, and many Universities have already begun to roll out such systems whereby students are assessed (in-part at least) through these means. However, it’s important to note that such tests are typically multiple-choice and are used to monitor performance rather than to provide a means for official qualification-based questioning. The system allows a sense of flexibility for students – who can complete the test in their own chosen environment and in their own time. If they wish to complete the test at home in their pyjamas – they can! Feedback can also be instantaneous (if required) while human-based errors in paper-marking are effectively eradicated. The process can also benefit the universities themselves. Lecturers can spend less time marking and more time teaching, papers can be stored online to remove the need for storage and reduce any environmental impact (the long-term costs of which are significantly lower than paper-based assessment) and tests can feature interactive multimedia to enhance learning.
First impressions might suggest that online testing heralds a new era for educational assessments – but any potential transition is not quite so simple. The costs associated with developing and implementing an online assessment scheme can be huge – and at a time when Universities are facing spending cuts and increasing student fees in the face of austerity, it would be difficult for them to justify such expenditure. There are also a number of other issues. At the forefront of this is a fierce debate regarding reliability. Those who refute e-assessment claim that the system is far too open to manipulation – insisting that implementation could lead to a massive increase in plagiarism and cheating. It seems, therefore, that the flexible nature of online testing is both a blessing and a hindrance. Advocates of e-learning have attempted to dissuade the naysayers by insisting that the time restrictions placed on participants make attempts at cheating an unattractive option. There is also speculation that developers are seeking to explore means by which invigilators could moderate participants online. For the time being however, such a system seems unlikely.
For as long as this controversy which surrounds e-assessments remains, it seems unlikely they will be adopted wholly for official use in examinations by Universities and other educational bodies. Could there be some space in the middle-ground between the two forms of testing which would provide the ideal solution? Computer based tests on institution grounds where students could be moderated by human protors perhaps? This remains to be seen. However, it’s clear that online testing represents the most significant shift away from the traditional pen-and-paper modes of assessment we’ve ever had – and this is definitely a space to watch in the future!