The world wide web has given a valuable assessment tool to higher education, says Gilly Salmon, professor of e-learning and learning technologies at Leicester University. Arguing for online assessment, she contends that it reflects the skills students have learnt, which nowadays have more to do with using online resources than sitting down for three hours with a pen and paper.
Adapting to this new approach requires a radical rethink. The benefits of online assessment are the same as those of online learning: flexibility and re-usability. This means being open-minded about students taking assessments more than once, or in their own time or space.
As for worries about who is really taking a test, the growing use of passwords and biometrics is addressing this problem. Salmon adds that it is important to design continuous assessment so that it is difficult for somebody other than the relevant student to take the final test.
The other issue to be considered is plagiarism. Julia Duggleby, online learning manager for Sheffield College, says this can be overcome by personalising assessments, either by asking students to apply what they have learnt to their own situation or by testing the same criteria on different topics for different students.
“What we should be assessing is what learners know,” she says. “One of the things they know how to do at the moment is pinch things. That's a bit of a skill.” However, effective assessment should be able to identify what they know rather than they have borrowed.
Denise Whitelock, director of the Computer-assisted Formative Assessment Project at the Open University, says a useful way of setting an e-assessment is to base your question on a common student misconception.
This will establish whether they have really understood what they have learnt.
She says it is possible to give hints and tips leading to a mark in summative as well as formative assessments. For example, if students get an answer wrong, they receive a message asking if they have thought of trying a particular technique. They can then have another go.
In this situation, marks would be deducted but the advantage is that their understanding would be developed.
Be prepared for an increase in the number of questions students ask once e-assessments are over, she warns, because they rely more on students working things out for themselves. "When students start doing these sorts of e-assessments, they start to understand what they don't know," she says.
Duggleby says you need to be completely unambiguous in the wording you use for online assessment, as students don't have an opportunity to ask for clarification. In addition, constructive, motivational feedback is essential after each assessment to prevent students feeling isolated.
Research by David Nicol, director of the Strathclyde University-led Re-engineering Assessment Practices project, stresses the importance of students understanding what the assessment is looking for, of maintaining dialogue and keeping students motivated.
He suggests one way to achieve this is to ask students to create multiple-choice questions, monitored by the tutor.
Programmes are being developed to set and mark short free-text questions online for formative assessments in arts-based subjects such as philosophy, but Whitelock says these should include a forum so students can continue peer discussion.
You also need to deal with practical problems. Rebecca Shilton, spokeswoman for the exam board Cambridge Assessment, says research on tests shows that basic familiarisation increases scores, so you should get students to review the style of questions and practise using the online interface.
A study Whitelock carried out for the Joint Information Systems Committee found that to be effective, e-assessment needs active support from senior management, including pedagogical, technical and staff development support for tutors.
Duggleby says you should assess online little and often, thereby keeping an eye on students' learning in the same way as you would if you saw them regularly face to face.