Students should be given access to the internet in exams

Pupils should be given access to the internet in exams if we want to move our education system into the modern era, according to Sugata Mitra, professor emeritus at NIIT University Rajasthan.

Professor Mitra made the claim during a panel session at the World Education Summit discussing how assessments – both high-stakes tests and informal in-class testing – need to evolve by 2030.

He claimed that the old model of exams that primarily test memory recall is out of date because the internet means we can access all information, all the time.

“By examination, we generally understand students sitting in rows and columns, answering questions on paper [that] relies a great deal on memory,” he said. “[But] the situation has changed because of the internet, it is possible now to have all reference materials and a lot more available from the internet at a moment’s notice.”

As such he said we should give students access to the internet in exams. He acknowledged that, for the current exam system, this would mean students would likely get every answer right.

However, he said allowing the internet in exams would actually move us to start asking more complicated questions in exams that properly test students’ capabilities.

“If we allow the internet during examinations…it will change the kind of questions that we ask, to questions where the answers are not obvious and perhaps not even available.”

Compute, comprehend and communicate

Mitra gave the example of asking students “Does dark energy exist?” and giving students 30 minutes on the internet to research this and put together an answer. He said that doing this would put a raft of key skills and attributes under the spotlight.

“Firstly, whether they can search accurately and find the right sources. Secondly, whether they can comprehend what they found from the internet. And lastly, whether they can communicate their comprehension fairly in writing or verbally, or whatever.

“So we are testing for the ability to compute, comprehend and communicate more than the ability to memorise content. This is the big change that any form of assessment needs today.”

Mitra acknowledged that switching to something like this was not simple and would take time to flesh out – not least by having the right research to inform how it would work best.

“We need research about what kind of questions are good for examinations where internet access is allowed and we need research on what, after an examination where the internet is allowed, students actually learn things rather than simply regurgitate what they have memorised.”

A shift to decision-driven data collection

During the panel discussion, Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at UCL, said that we also need to evolve how we use assessment data to inform understanding of a child’s learning progress.

“I see in schools all over the world a kind of commitment to data-driven decision-making, which leads people to almost fetishise data – they collect loads of data, but they have very little idea about what it is they want to do with that data,” he said.

“What we need to do is to shift from data-driven decision-making and towards decision-driven data collection. So in other words, we only ever collect data if we have already decided what we’re going to do with the data once it arrives.

He gave the example of where data is currently used to produce end-of-term reports for parents. But he said this is “too late” and joked that it only serves to “spoil a child’s holiday” – because it comes right at the end of the term and is then forgotten when the next term starts.

However, if schools were better at knowing the data they wanted to collect and then using it proactively, the situation could be improved.

“Let’s apply this idea of decision-driven data collection to parents. Let’s ask, what information would you like about your child’s progress? And when would you like it? The idea is that every bit of assessment starts from a theory of action of what is going to be done with that information.”

During this session, Elizabeth Bjork, professor of psychology at UCLA, also outlined the case for why teachers need to make use of what she terms “competitive multiple-choice questions” and “competitive true-false questions” as a good way to boost memory recall.

Dan Worth is a senior editor at Tes

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