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Why Online Assessments should be ‘Open Book’

Did you ever sit an ‘open book’ exam growing up? You probably went through the three emotions I did.

  1. Happiness — that we don’t need to study, since we’d have our text books.
  2. Panic — as we sat down and read the exam, and realised the book was going to be useless.
  3. Understanding — that the Teacher didn’t want us to recall facts and figures, but to display a deeper understanding.

These exams were actually more engaging as a student. You really had to use a combination of memory, logical thinking and creativity to get through them. Not to mention time management, as the brief flicker of hope that the text book might somehow help you never truly died out.

The migration from paper to digital

Educators today are embracing the move to digital assessment. The Singapore government has a national online assessment system for A-level and O-level exams. Australia is investing heavily in tech and infrastructure to roll out it’s NAPLAN system (which aims to have over 1 million students online – concurrently). Many universities are looking into transitioning to online exams also.

To date there has been a common request to all of these projects; we need them to be ‘closed book’.

After all, they are simply moving from paper delivery to digital delivery. The exams were closed book previously, so must remain that way.

Worse still, moving to online means students would potentially have access to the greatest text book every known; the internet (cue dramatic music).

Thus, technologies are being put in place to restrict internet access during exams. Typically these include lock-down applications that take over the terminal, or ‘safe exam’ browsers, which do not allow connection to the outside world (other than to synchronise data in the case of equipment failure). Make no mistake, these technologies are really advanced and cool in their own right. However, is ‘closed book’ really the way of the future?

Ask yourself: Has your boss ever given you a task and demanded you complete it without any internet access?

This has never happened to me. The internet is a wellspring of information, orders of magnitude larger than humankind has ever had access to in the past. To shut yourself off from it, is to forsake the possibility of gaining more knowledge and doing an even better job.

Truly embracing a digital world

If citizens of today (and the near future) are expected to have access to the internet to perform tasks, why are we so obsessed with testing students without it?

Would you rather hire someone that is great at recalling facts, or someone that can use all the tools available to them to come up with a great solution?

There will always be things we don’t know. The amount we don’t know far exceeds that which we do. The most valuable skill is being able to sort and find relevant information on demand and apply it.

Let it go

Change can be easy. Easier than trying to hold onto the past. Allow students can access the internet during an exam? Big deal. Those that know their content will still have an advantage. Those who don’t but are resourceful may find a way. And those who still can’t accomplish much really need some attention…

Technology is here to help

There are certain things computers do better than humans. Cross checking all the students responses against each other, looking for matching character strings that may indicate ‘copy and paste’ plagiarism scenarios, and highlighting them to humans for review? Computers are good at that. Our teachers and professors can then focus on what they do well; assessing the merit of course and exam work.

Be real

Ironically most teachers probably access the internet to design tasks for their students, while not giving them the same privilege.

Authoring creative problems for students is an art we should all admire in our teachers.

‘Open book’ exams might just swing curricula to align with the prioritisation of problem solving and creative thinking. Let rote learning be a relic of a bygone era. Everyone can encourage this new movement — by pushing for digital assessments to be ‘open book’. Just like the real world.

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Published by

Stuart Dalrymple

Business Development Manager, Certified Scrum Master. My goal is to help organisations realise the benefits of online exams.

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