Digital debate: Prepare kids for exams or life?

An Australian educator’s decision to let students use cell phones and the internet during exams has prompted a global dialog about the nature of 21st-century assessment–and whether the definition of cheating should be changed in light of ubiquitous technology use.

Students at Presbyterian Ladies College (PLC), a private girls’ school in Sydney, Australia, are participating in a pilot project in which they can use cell phones, the internet, and can even call a friend or relative to help them with an exam question.

Dierdre Coleman, the English teacher who is overseeing the pilot, told the Sydney Morning Herald that "purely memory-based assessment is increasingly irrelevant in the modern world" and that perhaps it’s more important to measure a student’s ability to gather information than his or her ability to memorize it.

Peter Reimann, an education professor at the University of Sydney, said students now have access to information resources online and in their social networks, and they are using social-networking web sites to exchange school-related information, in addition to using eMail and chatting online.

"’Social capital’ is no longer only relevant for students’ well-being–it’s increasingly becoming directly relevant for academic achievement as well," he said. "The line between ‘learning from technology’ and ‘performing with technology’ needs to be carefully revisited all the time. The question is not either-or, but what is … the right mix?"

Today, we would find it strange if students were not allowed to use paper and pencil when being tested, Reimann continued. 

"But paper and pencil are technologies, just as computers and phones are. They are just a bit older," he said. "And just as paper allows us to offload some of the cognitive load involved in challenging problems onto a medium–[when was the last time you] tried to solve a calculus problem in your head alone?–so do computers and communication technologies; they allow us to offload even more cognitive tasks onto our physical and social environment. Arguably, that’s the only way mankind is able to achieve the highly complex tasks we need to achieve today."

He added: "The fact is, we are increasingly making technology part of the teaching and learning situation–but we are not keeping up in aligning assessment sufficiently." 

That results in two negative outcomes, Reimann said. First, students notice the discrepancy and don’t see the point of the technology, the assessment, or both; and second, educators are underestimating what students know and can do, because students are being assessed in a manner that does not take into account the nature of 21st-century learning–they’re being cut off from the resources and tools they are familiar with.

As for whether using technology in assessments is a good idea, Reimann said it’s more a question of what technologies are being used.

"There is not much meaningful assessment without technology," he said. "It’s only a question of which technology, and of the alignment between technology in the learning situation and in the assessment situation."

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, William McKeith, PLC’s headmaster, said he was inspired to create the pilot after hearing the thoughts of Marc Prensky, an international education consultant.

"It’s not that we want kids to cheat," Prensky said. "It’s that the definitions of learning, cheating, researching, and collaborating are changing right in front of our eyes."

The ideas about how people find information are very fluid, he added, and that can be seen perhaps most easily in medicine, where medical students and doctors are allowed texts in which to look up the answers to questions–but what is most important is knowing which questions to ask.

"The key thing isn’t the information, it’s why is it important; ultimately, it’s a thought question," Prensky said. "That’s where we really want to go with that stuff, and lots of teachers say they can ask harder questions [that way]."

Many adults believe education should be the same as it was when they were in school–but that was a time before digital technology and the internet, Prensky said. 

"If you want to give your kids the education you received, we can do it, and we can make sure there’s no technology–that will prepare your kids real well for the 20th century," he said. "If that’s what you want, we can do it."

He concluded: "We’re preparing [students] for life, not for exams–that’s what it has come down to with [No Child Left Behind, preparing for exams], but that’s a silly thing to prepare people for, because you really want to prepare them for life and work."


Presbyterian Ladies College

University of Sydney

Marc Prensky