About a year ago I asked a group of students what they most disliked about their studies. One gripe they all had in common was examinations – but not that they were obliged to sit these, but rather that the answers had to be written out by hand. One of them told me that exams were the only thing for which he now used handwriting. Everything else, even lecture notes, he now did on a laptop or smartphone (or maybe now a tablet computer). He no longer possessed even one notebook; he could not see why he would ever need one. He did possess a ballpoint pen, but he illustrated its usefulness to him by telling me that, since he had been given it three years previously, he had never needed to buy a new refill. So why, he asked, should he be forced to use it for exams? If we were going to be that retro-minded, why not go the whole hog and insist on students using quill pens with ink?
Well, if he were a student at Edinburgh University he might be about to get some relief. According to a report in the newspaper Scotland on Sunday, the university is considering allowing students to use laptops in exams, though with software installed that would prevent them from going online or using other programs during the exam. According to the report, ‘senior officials at Edinburgh University believe it is unfair to expect undergraduates to resort to pens and paper during critical assessments when most of their coursework is done using a keyboard.’ Not only is the physical process of writing by hand now stressful for them, but they are also used to planning their work and executing it on a computer, so that doing it by hand unsettles them. In fact, Edinburgh are not altogether pioneers – secondary school students in Norway have been using laptops in examinations since 2009, as have students in some American universities.
It is probably true to say that we have barely scratched the surface in considering what modern technology may do to change teaching and pedagogy, and how it is affecting the students’ perceptions of study methods and assessment. Right now it looks as if universities will, without any particular coordination, slip into new ways of doing things, though quite probably not consistently. It is time to pay a little more attention to these matters.