Online Exams: The Future for GCSE, A Level & IB?

After the Covid-19 pandemic brought teaching and learning online, the move towards on-screen exams is being seriously considered. With trials taking place worldwide, is there a chance digital assessment will become the norm?
Online Exams: The Future for GCSE, A Level & IB?
By Carli Allan
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Students will sit on-screen GCSE exams this year in a major trial by exam board Pearson Edexcel, marking a big step towards online exams.

The UK-based online school, King’s InterHigh, is taking part in a pilot run by Pearson Edexcel to trial online GCSE exams. As the first and only school in the world to offer the IB Diploma Programme completely online, and one of the only online schools to use a metaverse school to teach students, King’s InterHigh recognises the advantages of on-screen assessment.

King’s InterHigh’s Executive Head Ashley Harrold said: 

"We've got about 150 students who will be taking their GCSE exams online this year, so it’s a really big first cohort. They will be taken in secure conditions so that students are unable to cheat in any way.

“It’s a huge development as it means that a UK education and internationally recognised qualifications are very much open to students worldwide. There are huge benefits for our students being able to sit their exams from home. It’s more convenient for families who don't live near to an exam centre, and it could be an absolute game-changer for students who have anxiety or a real fear of sitting exams 

“We hope to see that these online exam will mean fairer access to assessments for students who are very capable but are challenged to do as well as they could've done by having to sit the exams in a physical school.”

Are online exams the future?

Covid-19 highlighted how the traditional way of testing students is not suitable under all circumstances – and the pandemic has certainly accelerated plans for delivering exams online. 

Last year, England’s exam regulator Ofqual said it would explore the use of online testing over the next three years as part of its future plans for GCSEs and A Levels. It has removed certain regulations, allowing exam boards to use remote assessment, digital delivery and adaptive testing software that tailors exam questions to student responses.

The UK’s exam boards responded by launching several trials. Last year, 2,500 students from 100 schools and colleges took part in online 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 partly online computer science GCSE with a combination of live and on-screen interactive coding challenges and a written paper. 

Last year, it trialled a fully online International English GCSE for 700 students worldwide, and this will be offered again this year alongside IGCSEs in business, history and economics and International A Levels in English Literature and Language.

This year, thousands of students sat on-screen mock GCSE exams in a trial by exam boards OCR and Cambridge International, both part of Cambridge University Press & Assessment. Thirty UK schools and 35 international schools offered on-screen mock exams for GCSE Computer Science, IGCSE English and AS Level History. 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: 

“Digital assessment is not a hypothetical future; it’s happening right now.

We will use insights from these trials to make our digital mocks a user-friendly option for all schools and colleges. Students will be able to take the highest quality online tests, building on our established paper exams, where schools opt to do so. Our development approach based on trials and research ensures we deliver high-quality, robust digital assessments.

“Digital assessment will never fully replace traditional exams, but technology is improving the student experience and can make exams more effective, resilient and flexible with access to faster feedback and results.”

A global switch to online exams?

It’s not just UK qualifications that are making the move towards online exams.

The Director-General of the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO), Olli-Pekka Heinonen, has said the organisation is looking at how it could bring digital assessment to its Diploma Programme, noting that "we have now come to the moment for the IB to move into that area". 

The IBO does already offer digital assessment in its Middle Years Programme (MYP) with optional two-hour exams provided through mixed-mark, on-screen examinations in subjects such as Language and literature, Geography, History, maths and Sciences - something it has done since 2016. However, it has not yet set out a timeline for  moving to online assessments for the IBDP.

The IBO is testing a fully online version of the IBDP, and the online school King’s InterHigh is the first school in the world to offer the programme completely remotely. Its first cohort of IBDP students will sit their exams next year – but on paper. Mr Harold explains:

“While we are trialling the online IBDP, it will still be physical exams at the end. In the future, I think we could see the move to online exams for the IB as well. I think that most international assessment could soon be delivered online."


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