Schools could be moving a big step closer towards online exams being rolled out worldwide following more trials of on-screen and online IGCSEs. With exam boards including Pearson Edexcel and AQA piloting online exams, on-screen assessment is already confidently finding its place in schools in the UK and worldwide.
In 2023, Pearson has seen entry numbers double for on-screen exams as thousands of students around the world have chosen to take International GCSE exams on-screen rather than on paper.
Pearson told WhichSchoolAdvisor:
“On-screen assessment creates an authentic experience that chimes with how many of today's young learners live, learn, think and how they will work.
"With the options to personalise the set-up of the test player it enables accessible and inclusive experiences for all, and there’s also the opportunity to provide game-changing, actionable insights around engagement with questions and topics, enabling teachers to tailor delivery and potentially reducing teacher workload and give students agency in their own learning.
“We’ve had some really uplifting feedback from schools on how students feel that taking exams onscreen supports them with their planning and confidence, which is brilliant to hear, and something we definitely want to continue.”
One advocate for on-screen assessment is the UK-based online school, King’s InterHigh, which has just taken part in a pilot run by Pearson. Around 150 students took their GCSE exams online this year, being able to sit their exams on-screen and from home.
The distinction between online exams and 'on-screen' exams is significant. Online examinations, along with online learning more broadly, can be completed from anywhere with a suitable internet connection; this brings more flexibility and increasing accessibility of learning and assessment. As well as being convenient for families who don't live near to an exam centre, it can be a lifeline for students who have anxiety or a medical condition.
Ashley Harrold, CEO of Inspired Online Schools (which owns King's InterHigh), explains how on-screen exams can make GCSEs more accessible:
"I am immensely proud that through our successful pilot of online GCSEs, King’s InterHigh has been able to expand access to qualifications for students who may not have achieved their potential through traditional exam systems.
"The use of technology has empowered us to tailor the exam process to suit each student’s individual circumstances and needs. Offering King’s InterHigh students the choice to take their GCSEs online has proven especially beneficial for those unable to participate in a physical exam setting due to SEND, anxiety, health concerns, or limited international access to exam centres."
On-screen exams have been welcomed by teenagers like King’s InterHigh student Sylvie, who would typically find it challenging to sit an exam due to her myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and her requirement for regular breaks. By sitting her GCSE exams online, Sylvie was able to successfully complete Pearson Edexcel International GCSEs in both English Language and English Literature.
Mr Harrold says King's InterHigh will continue to provide access to online assessment, both for mock and final exams. He adds:
"We are also planning to integrate online mock exams. Preparations are already underway to ensure that students who choose to take their examinations online will also be able to complete their mock exams online."
Several GCSE and A Level exam boards are now trialling digital exams, both mocks and finals.
Last year, 2,500 students from 100 schools and colleges took part in on-screen GCSE trials by exam board AQA. The trial included adaptive – or ‘smart’ – assessments that adjust in difficulty as students’ progress through the test. Adaptive testing involves adjusting the difficulty of a test or exam to suit the aptitude of a student. Adaptive testing could replace the use of tiered or foundation GCSE exams, which are currently offered to students are unlikely to achieve the top grades.
In 2020, Pearson Edexcel was among the first to launch on-screen assessment; it launched a computer science GCSE with a combination of live and on-screen coding challenges and a written paper. In 2022, it was the first exam board to provide International GCSE students with onscreen exams, and this year it offered an online International English GCSE for over 700 students worldwide, alongside IGCSEs in business, history and economics and International A Levels in English Literature and Language.
More on-screen International GCSEs will be introduced by Pearson in the next two years, including Business, Economics and History, as well as International A Levels in English Literature and English Language.
Pearson told WhichSchoolAdvisor:
“We want to build on the learnings garnered and explore what’s possible within a consistently secure environment, empowering greater choice and enabling flexibility so that all students can access and engage with exams in ways that work for them.
"This involves not only continuing our research and piloting new approaches, but also our work with the education community and beyond to tackle school-wide digital inequalities, such as access to devices, training and wi-fi mentioned by over 6,000 educators in our recent Pearson School Report.”
This year, the OCR and Cambridge International exam boards trialled digital mock exams. Thirty UK schools and 35 international schools offered on-screen mock exams for GCSE Computer Science, IGCSE English and AS Level History, and results were delivered to students within 14 days of sitting exams.
Following these 2023 trials, the digital mock service will be offered to all schools as a permanent part of assessment services from Cambridge – and it looks increasingly likely that these mocks could pave the way for digital exams as a permanent part of the UK’s exam system.
Jill Duffy, Chief Executive of OCR, said:
“Students and teachers embraced digital learning by necessity during the pandemic. Now we can harness the best of that technology in assessment by choice.”
Does this suggest that on-screen assessment could soon be the norm, in the UK and worldwide?
Well, England’s exam regulator Ofqual is exploring the use of online testing as part of its future plans for GCSEs and A Levels. It has already removed certain regulations, allowing exam boards to use remote assessment, digital delivery and adaptive testing software that tailors exam questions to student responses. However, there are still plenty of obstacles and challenged to be addressed before on-screen assessments can become the standard, and we are certainly several years away from the end of pen and paper
In a recent speech given by Ofqual's Chief Regulator, Dr Jo Saxton, at the Wellington Festival of Education, she said:
“We think that what England needs to be moving towards is a mixed approach. We should take the best of the traditional – tried, tested and trusted – approaches, and bring in some of the modern innovations too. In other words, we are not getting rid of handwriting any time soon!”
While there’s a rise in support for on-screen assessment – Covid-19 has certainly helped to accelerate this – parents would prefer the mixed approach. A recent poll of UK families found that just 1 in 5 students and only 1 in 5 parents thought that all GCSE and A Level exams should be taken on a computer. 48% of students and 54% of parents preferred to have a mixture: some computer, some traditional pen and paper.
The poll showed support for many subjects being delivered on-screen, but not for music, drama, art and PE. 42% of parents felt things like maths equations would be better done in pen and paper than on-screen, and students shared concerns around typing equations, plotting charts, and drawing shapes on a computer.
The key concerns raised in the poll with moving to on-screen assessment included cheating, data security, technical issues “and potential unfairness arising from unequal access to technology”.
Addressing one of these concerns, Pearson defends the robustness of its on-screen platform in preventing cheating.
“As an example, in our International GCSE (9–1) English Language A and English Literature, on-screen exams include no physical question papers or resource material; the whole exam is hosted in an onscreen assessment platform, candidates respond onscreen and those responses are submitted directly by the candidates during the exam.
“Our onscreen exams can only be accessed and taken on a Windows, Mac or Chromebook device. To access our onscreen exams, any students using a Windows or MAC device (centre or student-owned) install our secure browser and centre-owned Chromebooks must be set to 'kiosk mode'. This means that everything else (other than the exam itself) is locked down so there is no way of accessing any other programmes on their device and this also prevents access to the internet.
"Students can’t click on anything outside of the Safe Exam Browser or assessment in kiosk mode. Closing the browser window/assessment requires a password that only invigilators can access.”
If students are to move towards on-screen assessment in the future, schools will need to ensure they have the digital skills (everything from typing and keyboard proficiency to answering questions online). The move to on-screen assessment will be much smoother for schools using devices and laptops in the classroom (and for those with 1:1 device programmes) where students are already comfortable using technology.
There are barriers to a more widespread roll-out of on-screen and online exams, and the ‘digital divide’ between schools, countries and students is a huge challenge to overcome. However, a change towards technology-based exams offers opportunities for developing skills in the world we now live and study in – and so it is a question 'if' when rather 'whe'n.
As Mr Harrold (King's InterHigh) says:
“Our pilot of online exams has fundamentally rewritten the rules on what inclusive access to assessment means. The pilot not only showcased the transformative impact of technology but also demonstrated how innovation can reshape future outcomes and opportunities for students whose needs are not met by mainstream education.
"Following the success of the pilot, the remaining challenge is the lack of awareness among parents and students about the option to take exams online. This is something we are working hard to change."