From education to employment

If AQA’s pilot proves a success, online exams could be introduced across the board by 2025

Minna Melleri, Director of Advocacy & Growth at JA Europe

Online exams: The pros and cons of the new policy

Last month, one of the UK’s largest exam boards announced plans for pupils in England to sit A-Level and GCSE papers online as part of a major trial that could radically accelerate the digitization of the education sector. If AQA’s pilot programme proves a success, online exams could be introduced across the board by 2025.

This shift online is by no means restricted to the UK. Governments across Europe are also pursuing large investments to integrate digital exams into the curriculum.

For example, last year educational facilities across the Czech Republic and Slovakia took part in a trial for online entrance exams and three universities in Norway have pivoted to a digital approach for assessments.

A revolutionary step forward

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On one hand, this move can be viewed as a revolutionary step forward. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, educational facilities were not prepared for a rapid shift to online learning and assessments. As a result, there has been significant disruption to education and training programmes for individuals of all ages and abilities over the past two years.

However, now society is starting to appreciate that technology can be a force for good in education. Moving exams online will not only provide more in-depth data on the achievements of pupils, but it will also be cheaper and help to ensure more accurate marking.

In addition to this, it will also be better for the environment in the long term. At the moment, AQA handles 12 million exam papers each summer which creates 600 tonnes of CO2 and 30 tonnes of plastic packaging alone.

Moving to an online platform will help to bolster the sectors efforts to become more environmentally friendly.

…or cause for significant concern?

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On the other hand, there are already significant concerns about the reality of how this shift will play out on a mass scale.

From the challenge of having enough devices for pupils, to concerns over cheating and ensuring a stable internet connection, there are numerous issues that still need to be addressed.

There are also substantial fears that the move will exasperate existing inequalities and that it will be the most vulnerable young people who are disproportionately impacted.

For example, children with disabilities and those from lower economic backgrounds are just two of the groups who might struggle to adapt to a fully digital system.

Digital skills shortages

With a recent report by JA Europe finding that 67 per cent of these students are already at risk of falling behind in mainstream education, these inequalities must be addressed before the system is overhauled.

JA Europe works in 41 countries across Europe and is known in the UK as Young Enterprise.

From our experience, much of Europe is heading towards a digital skills shortage with less than half of all employers believing young people are leaving full-time education with adequate digital knowledge.

Therefore, this isn’t just about the debate over the practicalities of online exams, but how a lack of digital skills can continue to hinder young people as they attempt to move into higher education and then the workforce.

Digital Poverty

Today, 17 per cent of children in the UK do not have consistent access to a suitable device for online learning, and this rises to 27 per cent of children from financially vulnerable households.

For those from a lower socio-economic background, there are considerable limitations in terms of digital participation and technological skills, largely down to not having the financial resources to buy computers or pay costly internet subscriptions.

If the proposed move to online exams is to be a success across Europe, then action needs to be taken now to address the stark imbalance and prevent already vulnerable youth from being pushed out from the education system.

Tackle the problem at its root

Governments must work with educational facilities, businesses and others to tackle the problem at its root and facilitate the teaching of crucial digital skills. This must begin with the provision of sufficient funding and resources from both the public and private sectors, allowing all young people to be able to access computers and digital equipment.

There is no question that digital skills are going to be needed across all sectors and positions in the future. Companies are already using online assessments for job applications and virtual apprenticeships are rapidly gaining traction.

Now key players need to work together to address the digital skills gap and ensure that young people cannot just thrive at school, but also be equipped to enter the job market in this new digital landscape.

Minna Melleri, Director of Advocacy & Growth at JA Europe

JA Europe is the largest provider of education programmes for entrepreneurship, work readiness and financial literacy across Europe

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