The words “the pen is mightier than the sword” were first written 175 years ago by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in a play he wrote called ‘Cardinal Richelieu’. The protagonist, Richelieu, thinking about a battle against another country says “The pen is mightier than the sword… Take away the sword; States can be saved without it!’

Now perhaps we can say “Take away the pen; exams can be written without it!’

Finally, it seems this might be a possibility.

This was the view which came from an event organised by RM Results and hosted by the IB, where leading educationalists took part in a day of discussion about e-assessment best practice.

The first speaker was Professor Sugata Mitra. Describing his famous “Hole in the Wall” experiment and subsequent “School in the Cloud” projects. Professor Mitra discovered that if children are given free, public access to computers they can learn how to use them by themselves. Even if they have never accessed one before.

Without any prompting or help from adults, children will quickly organise themselves into groups and work together to find out answers to questions which intrigue them or pique their interest. They will use access to the internet to achieve meaningful, lasting cognitive understand and learning.

Professor Mitra advocates a raft of changes to education and assessment to reflect the skills that are becoming the most important in 21st century, including allowing students’ access to the internet in exams in the same way that the Victorians would have allowed use of the ‘latest tools’ (e.g. protractors).

Whilst not going quite as far as allowing internet access during exams, the IB has developed an exam, which encourages and measures the new, open-ended, digital way of learning identified by Professor Mitra. Called, the Middle Years Programme (MYP) it is equivalent to GSCEs. Gareth Hegarty from the IB explained how it works.

The MYP tests the student against four criteria: developing knowledge and understanding; investigating; communicating; and thinking critically.

These criteria are tested by presenting the student with a rich multi-media environment, which reflects the content available on the internet. The exam measures how well the student interacts with that information, and how well they apply their knowledge and skills to the exam questions using the multi-media information available to them.

The digital assessment allows the student to change variables, get different results, measure response and reproduce an enquiry process.  This allows marks to be awarded not solely for knowledge, but for perceptual understanding, enquiry and communication.

The challenges the IB has overcome in developing this exam are challenges, which any awarding organisation will face, and offers valuable insight for those looking to introduce e-assessment.

Security and equitable access to technology are key issues. With the MYP, students can bring in their own device, but each device must pass an IB Compatibility Checker before the exam takes place.

Exams are delivered through web-based or local area networks, but there is an option to load the exam from a memory stick. As soon as the program that runs the exam is opened, the computers are locked down and can only be opened for a limited period of time.  Multi factor authentication ensures security.

Losing work due to technical issues is a key concern. With the MYP exam, Cloud and local backup ensure students’ responses are captured on the student’s machine and mirrored in the Cloud. So, even if their device fails, the exam can be reopened via another exam login and the student can resume where he or she left off.

On-screen marking (e-marking) is an obvious benefit of this approach. There is no need to collect, photocopy and post material, with all the logistics, security risks and time lag this could entail. Marking can be immediate and collaborative, with examiners and their supervisors based anywhere in the world.

Some of the issues associated with traditional pen and paper assessment still remain.  Sending USB memory sticks around the world to different exam locations is a risk, as is sending out exam papers.

But other issues are resolved.  With an online exam, the computer system recognises who the student is, and what they might need in terms of time allowance, size of font, and colour background. This gives a huge improvement in accessibility and takes away any on-the-spot concerns for the invigilator.

The invigilator and the awarding organisation need to be prepared to deal with some basic logistical issues however. Ensuring adequate electrical sockets, Wi-Fi, spare devices, batteries or chargers are all subjects which need to be considered.

The success of the IB MYP exam has shown that we can take away the pen and paper format and deliver modern, high stakes exams digitally. There are still practical, logistical issues to consider for any new exams that look to go digital, but clearly it is possible to adapt both the educational approach and the assessment methodology to best fit 21st century demands.