Exams in England could soon be taken digitally, as COVID-19 inspires broader use of education technology

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez May 5, 2022
Ofqual - England’s qualifications and exams regulator - has set out a new three year plan, which looks at the opportunity of on-screen assessment.

An image of a student taking an exam on paper
(Image by F1 Digitals from Pixabay )

The rapid changes experienced across the education sector during the COVID-19 pandemic are spurring a rethink in how qualifications could be gained through assessments in the future. The greater use of technology for education over the past two years has prompted the question - should governments be looking to digital tools for examinations too? 

That’s certainly what’s happening in England at the moment, where this week the country’s independent regulator for qualifications and assessments, Ofqual, said that it is going to look at how technology and on-screen assessment could be adopted. 

Ofqual has laid out a new three year plan, which is broad in scope, but at its core looks at the opportunity of digital to challenge existing practice, with the hope of improving quality and fairness for students. 

It’s worth noting that the regulator hasn’t suggested a wholesale shift to on-screen or digital exams for all qualifications, but the plan clearly lays out its intent to actively pursue digital tooling for assessment in the future. 

Ofqual currently regulates 205 awarding organizations, and over 11,600 qualifications for which 10.8 million certificates were issued in 2021.These include GCSEs, AS and A levels, apprenticeship assessments and a broad range of vocational and technical qualifications.

In 2020 to 2021 there were 10.8 million total certificates awarded.

The new Ofqual three year plan highlights the impact of COVID-19, which is driving many of the changes it outlines this week, and that its focus going forward is fairness and quality. The plan states: 

At the heart of good quality qualifications and assessments is validity – assessing the right thing, in the right way, to provide accurate and useful assessment results. Good qualifications must be designed well. They must be delivered securely to create a level playing field for all who take them, and they must be awarded in a way that protects standards. 

For assessments to be as fair as possible, students and apprentices should not be advantaged or disadvantaged either by assessment design that favours certain groups of students over others or by malpractice (cheating).

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had a significant effect on the delivery of qualifications over the past 2 years and will continue to have implications in the years to come. We will act to make sure that qualifications are as fair as they can be, and that they play their proper role in supporting effective teaching and learning as students recover from the pandemic.

Immediate priorities 

Ofqual states that it has a key role in leading, influencing and enabling innovation in transformation in assessment and qualifications. This includes new approaches to assessment, which may include new technologies that could have the potential to improve quality and fairness for students and apprentices. The hope is, according to the new plan, to strengthen the resilience of how qualifications and assessments are delivered. 

However, Ofqual also notes that research is fundamental and it aims to deepen its understanding across the sector to help shape the future of exams in England. Part of this will be using data to provide new insights to inform decision making, build public confidence and maintain standards and market efficiency. The plan notes: 

We will use our expertise and regulatory powers to inform, enable, promote and, where appropriate, require the adoption of new approaches – in the interests of students and apprentices.

Between 2022 and 2025, Ofqual plans to: 

  • consider approaches to the regulation of innovative practices and technology to make sure these promote valid and efficient assessment, and are implemented safely in the interests of students

  • engage with awarding organizations to support the use of innovative practice and technology and remove regulatory barriers where innovation promotes valid and efficient assessment

  • evaluate the potential risks and benefits of remote invigilation

  • use data from across the education sector to broaden our insight and inform those who use and rely on qualifications

  • explore opportunities for reducing the impact of the exams system on the environment

Commenting on the plans, Ofqual Chair, Ian Backham, said: 

Ofqual’s deep assessment expertise, access to expansive data and our convening power afford us a unique role in shaping the future of qualifications and assessment. We are ambitious in that goal. Regulation must enable good innovation that is in the interests of students and apprentices. Our research should guide and inform the adoption of new and better approaches, particularly where these solve problems in assessment.

The pandemic has, rightly, catalysed questions about not if, but when, and how, greater use of technology and onscreen assessment should be adopted. All proposed changes need to be carefully assessed for their impact on students, including those with special educational needs and disabilities. It is right that we use research and evidence to challenge existing practice so that we continue to improve what we offer for students and apprentices.

I am personally hugely grateful for the engagement of so many people in our work. Only by working together can we secure qualifications that meet the interests of students, apprentices, employers and all those that use qualifications both today and well into the future.

Ofqual’s people and tech strategy

Ofqual isn’t just taking an external view of the impact of COVID-19, it is also looking internally as an organization at its people, the data it collects and the technology it uses. The plan also outlines how Ofqual is going to develop those, so that it can strengthen its regulatory ambitions. 

The plan outlines the following ambitions for the organization through to 2025: 

  • launch and implement a new people strategy with a focus on building capacity including through apprentices, supporting culture and developing leadership

  • deliver commitments to diversity and inclusion, set out in the people strategy, to ensure diversity of voice, equality of opportunity and to be an inclusive employer

  • make best use of technology to support interactions with those who use and are interested in qualifications

  • continue to develop and use technology, including for the secure management and use of data to increase the effectiveness, efficiency and impact of Ofqual’s work

  • further improve cyber security in line with nationally set standards and best practice

My take

What’s happening in education in England and further afield, is also taking place in many other sectors too. As the reactionary approach that we saw in the early stages of the pandemic softens, sectors and organizations are stopping to think what things could look like now that people’s expectations have changed. It would be a missed opportunity to revert back to the status quo when there is a willingness to change existing practices. Don’t miss that window. 

A grey colored placeholder image