5 commonly asked questions about online assessments
If as a school, teacher or parent you hadn’t come across online teaching and assessment pre-2020, you almost certainly have now. Chances are, you’re probably already engaging with digital versions of exams and assessments, are making decisions about implementing them, or considering using this technology for events such as academic competitions.
When it comes to national-level assessment events or academic competitions, online is increasingly coming to the forefront. It’s likely that pen and paper will be increasingly phased out and digital is here to stay.
As with anything new or unfamiliar, there will be questions. To help you navigate the new waters or make decisions about online assessment, here are some of the ones schools most frequently ask.
1. I’m happy with basic pen-and-paper exams and tests. Why should I take on the hassle to move to online when paper assessments are working just fine?
The short answer is, pen-and-paper will soon no longer meet modern education needs. While traditional exam formats served us well for many generations, paper assessments and the logistics involved in using them are becoming redundant, limiting and cumbersome.
What’s more, as we saw during COVID, pen-and-paper is simply not fit for purpose if teachers have to work remotely at a moment’s notice, or the process of schools delivering physical answer sheets back to an academic competition organiser is halted by lockdowns. That goes for marking, reporting and other processes involved.
If you’re used to running paper assessments each year it can feel bothersome to even think about relearning a process you’ve already mastered. But here are just some benefits to keep in mind about online:
- They automate cumbersome admin tasks: Online assessment software platforms integrate and work seamlessly with your school’s existing student management data systems. In the case of an academic competition, for example, this means they can perform tasks such as automatically populate student information when they enroll to participate. This is a massive timesaver for school staff.
- Less handling and transporting and swifter marking: With digital exams, you can deliver your students’ responses back to the assessment body with a few mouse clicks. Compare that with the work of collecting, sorting, packaging and transporting physical exam booklets. Not to mention the risk of loss, theft or damage of paper tests. With online assessment, the marking process can literally begin moments after your students submit their answers.
- Intricate insights and analytics: Enhanced data capabilities within online assessment platforms provide analytics that you can use as a feedback loop to continually improve and refine your teaching approach. The detailed information-gathering that’s enabled by digitised exams or academic competition events is simply not possible with pen and paper. As a teacher, you can see how long students spent on each question, common types of mistakes or skill gaps, and much more. All in an easy-to-navigate on-screen report that you can customise as you prefer.
2. My school’s internet connection can be shaky at best. Won’t that be stressful and distracting for students in an assessment? And what if their answers get deleted during a drop-out?
Online assessment platform developers factor-in the variable bandwidth and infrastructure conditions within which schools’ IT systems operate. These platforms are designed to run reliably and deliver a test without interruption even to some of the most remote and technologically basic parts of the globe.
The technology is centered on the student’s experience. It looks and behaves just like a normal web browser, giving test-takers a seamless experience for the duration of their assessment sitting time.
And then there’s the submission of data itself. Online assessments are designed to continually sync data and responses to the server, so if your students do drop offline (or a device loses power), the window for data flow getting interrupted is negligible and their answers will have been preserved.
Your own management and planning on assessment day can also assist with ensuring a solid network connection. This is why some online assessment organisers offer one-week sitting windows, so your school can communicate and plan to ensure bandwidth-hungry activities aren’t taking place on the other side of the school building during an exam or academic competition.
3. What about the risk of data getting hacked or stolen?
Online assessment providers take the protection of student data and other sensitive information extremely seriously. The technology is built to be bulletproof against potential data breaches, ID falsification, tampering, theft, lost answer submissions and human error.
It’s actually more likely for a physical exam to get lost, tampered with or damaged in transit. With online, you have a digital fingerprint for every stage of the process. The technology’s audit trails record every human touch-point and it’s much easier to identify rogue activity and swiftly isolate the source.
Reputable academic competition bodies choose online assessment providers whose servers are based on-shore in Australia, and whose platforms run on major cloud servers (such as Microsoft Azure) that come with enterprise-grade security which includes encryption of all exam content and student details. This means that in the unlikely event that an intruder managed to hack in, they wouldn’t be able to decipher what they find.
4. Isn’t it easier for students to cheat in an online assessment?
Some educators fear that the digital format opens schools to the possibility of more cheating, including the assessment questions being viewed or stolen ahead of time. Or for students to use external applications such as Google during the exam itself, or the risk of classmates copying each other’s answers when sitting assessments on desktop screens which are often larger than a piece of paper.
In certain online assessments however, the subject matter itself prevents cheating. Many involve unlocking higher-level thinking, which means they won’t be asking questions that have an easily “Googleable” response.
Secondly, tests can be run in a locked-down environment where it’s impossible for students to access any other apps or websites for the duration of the exam. And since test packages are fully encrypted, both in transit and at rest on student devices, there’s no point where they’re externally accessible or decipherable.
Finally, online assessments make use of randomisation. Randomisation serves students the assessment questions or multiple-choice response options in a different order from the person sitting next to them. Which mean it’s very possible that two students who are sitting next to each other will be completing what appears to be quite a different test.
5. My school’s IT equipment is very limited – and our IT staff are run off their feet. Won’t we be at a disadvantage compared with schools who have newer computers and support available?
Assessment bodies and academic competitions keep this concern top of mind when choosing their online assessment provider. That means the platform software is designed to be compatible with an enormous range of devices and operating system versions, whether they belong to your school, or your students bring in or borrow a device on which to take a test.
The assessment interface has been designed by technologists with a background in teaching or the education industry, anticipating any stumbling blocks or potentially confusing aspects of set-up or operating the software to run the tests for your students. Most of all, it takes into account that teachers have hugely varying technical skills, so it’s designed to be as intuitive and easy to install and navigate as the most familiar everyday social media or internet platforms.
Step-by-step instructions are easily available on how to set up for test day, and often there is an option to run a practice test to get familiar with the platform beforehand. If your school does get stuck, an experienced support team is just a phonecall away.
If you’ve been thinking of registering your school for online assessments, there are many reasons to embrace the benefits of this technology. What’s more, students are digital natives, growing up with a smartphone in their hand. By and large, they love engaging with online assessments because they are already similar to their day-to-day digital activities. Chances are you’ll get a big thumbs up from your most important end user of all.
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