Thousands of students will be sitting some of their NCEA exams this year using a laptop or PC, as digital assessment starts to roll out in earnest.

On all but one exam day in November and December some students will be typing, rather than writing their answers.  For them hand cramps and scrawling extra thoughts in the margins of their papers will be a thing of the past.

More than 200 schools are interested in offering students the opportunity to sit at least one subject digitally this year.

This reflects the way students already interact with the world, how they’re doing much of their learning, and will help prepare them for their next steps after school.

NCEA Online is part of how NZQA is meeting the challenge of learning and working in a rapidly changing world.

It’s happening in stages – over the past five years we have been trialling and piloting.  In 2019, 14 text-based subjects will be offered digitally on a new exam platform, across levels 1, 2 and 3.  That’s 35 exams, or about one third of the total.  The range of subjects will expand in 2020 and beyond, and in future years more will be developed specifically for a digital platform.

Students tell us they love working online – 97% of those responding to last year’s satisfaction survey found completing online exams a positive experience.

We want students and schools to choose online exams when they’re ready; and a big part of readiness is whether students have been learning digitally.

We have asked schools about their confidence levels for participating in the 2019 exams, and if they are considering the digital platform. The responses from 385 schools so far show nearly all responding schools deliver at least some of their curriculum and assessments digitally, with the vast majority saying students value digital learning and assessment and that their boards support it as a priority.

Schools think they and NZQA are “on the way” to getting it right but believe more support is needed where there are challenges to participation. We are working with education agencies and others to help address these.

Schools, students, exam centre managers and others are involved in the design process, so how we deliver digital exams matches the changing classroom experience. Our testing has shown technologies can’t yet provide the right mathematics digital assessment experience, so we’re continuing to explore with teachers how we achieve that.

As part of that codesign we’re looking ahead at the next wave of innovation that will unfold over the next several years.

Digital technologies can make the exam experience more “real” and relevant.  While we expect good quality essay writing will remain important as a skill, online assessment can increase the ways students can show what they know and can do, and engage them in new ways.

For example, future digital exams may assess students using a simulation to show what they know and how they can apply it to a situation.

Equity is a key motivator for many of the innovations we’re exploring. As part of our focus on supporting the lift of Māori and Pasifika achievement, we have worked closely with small groups of students to deeply understand their assessment experience.

For example, our Pasifika STEM Ambassadors (year three health science university students) suggested students could experience richer resources to help them answer questions.  So technology could visually bring to life the flat images traditionally seen on paper or let students hear questions read aloud, as well as reading the text.

Contributing to a good exam experience includes reducing the need for students to travel to sit their exams where their school is not an exam centre. Students are more likely to be absent from an exam, or not able to deliver their best work if they’re in an unfamiliar environment different to where they feel comfortable doing their learning.

Not everyone is learning online – various digital divides are well documented. Digital assessment could be part of the solution. To do a digital assessment well, students need to learn online and be familiar with their device.

That said, we know digital learning and assessment can draw in students who have not engaged with traditional paper-based learning – and that’s a circuit breaker in some instances.

Innovative digital assessment can help students use critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, creativity and resilience to achieve their learning goals.

Student and other voices are helping NZQA co-design digital assessment experiences which reflect their learning environment in new ways more relevant to their individual needs and their culture.

Andrea Gray is Deputy Chief Executive of Digital Assessment Transformation – leading NCEA Online for NZQA.

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