Overcoming barriers to e-assessment

In our previous blog we looked at whether pen and paper based exams would soon become a distant memory and it was clear that in the UK there are some barriers which are slowing the transition to computerising examinations.

Using digital technology isn’t just about replacing pen and paper, it provides a way in which assessments can be enhanced. Institutions recognise the many benefits of e-assessment such as interactive question types, multimedia, instant marking and results generation; enabling a quick turn around on feedback to candidates.

So why then, with these added benefits and the software readily available, are we still using pen and paper?

What are the major barriers to adopting computer-based exams?

The slow transition from paper to digital exams is influenced by a number of factors. Some of the major barriers that make us hesitant to adopting computer-based exams are the IT infrastructure required. This includes

1. Equipment availability

2. Reliable network connection throughout an exam

1. Equipment availability

A common barrier to computer-based assessment throughout the education sector is the availability of technology. Many schools, colleges and universities do not have computer labs large enough to house a whole cohort of students. It is too expensive to justify buying enough computer terminals to supply every student for exams that may only occur once or twice a year. 

How can we overcome this potential barrier?

Currently many universities deliver exams using Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) sheets as they don’t have the capacity to sit large cohorts of students at computer terminals. But could this problem of computer availability be overcome by student’s bringing their own laptops? Also known as bring your own device (BYOD). A recent survey showed that 89% of students own a laptop and 58% of students own three or more mobile devices.

In November 2003 the National University of Singapore trialled a high stakes exam with 672 students bringing their own laptops. As they didn’t have a large enough location for all students to sit the exam at once, they were divided into two sittings and the exam was sat in lecture theatres with adequate power supplies. Students were surveyed before and after the exam and commented that they felt better using their own laptop due to familiarity with their own device and preferred clicking options rather than filling in a shaded OMR sheet because it was quicker.

If students were given the option of being able to bring their own devices it then begs the question; do universities have sufficient bandwidth to reliably support a large number of devices in a high stakes exam situation?

2. Reliable network connection throughout an exam

When considering a move to an electronic system for managing and delivering exams often ‘digital’ is associated with ‘online’.  If delivering exams via computers requires a high speed, sustained internet connection it raises a large number of concerns. It could cost higher education establishments a significant investment to be able to support a large number of students using the network to complete an exam at the same time.

If an exam contains rich media files, precious time could be wasted while students sit and wait for images to load. Relying on available bandwidth also means that you can’t guarantee that an hour examination is actually an hour. This would lead to a very unfair exam experience.

How can we overcome this barrier?

Primarily by using examination software that does not rely on a high speed, reliable network connection. Software is now available that allows students to download the exam paper onto their computer before the day of the examination but prevents them from starting the exam until the start date and time has passed. This way you can have complete assurance that students can sit an exam given the exact amount of time that is allowed and not have to wait for images to download.

Overcoming barriers

You can see that there are ways of overcoming potential technical barriers to adopting e-assessment. There are already cases where over 600,000 students sit the same exam simultaneously for vocational qualifications. So it is not that it physically or practically can’t be done but often it requires a high level of will and involvement of all stakeholders in the assessment process including buy in from students.