Now here’s an important story coming out of Denmark: Students in Denmark Allowed Full Access to the Internet During Exams

I have always been a believer in allowing students to use any resources they can during examinations. If we care about authentic assessment, what can be more authentic than that. When I have a question that I need an answer to, or some topic I need to learn about, the first thing I do is go to Google. Why should students be denied that resource? Knowledge today is as much in our brains as it is distributed in artifacts (my laptop) and on the web. So it is heartening for me to read the following:

…the Danish government preach [sic] that the Internet is so much a part of daily life, it should be included in the classroom and in examinations.

With that belief, the government have taken the bold step of allowing full Internet access to several high schools during their final year exams. The implications of this are significant, particularly for the kinds of questions we ask in such exams. Clearly these have to change. No longer can we ask simple factual questions the answers to which can be easily found on the web. We have to ask questions that push students to compare and contrast opposing points of view, questions that push them to think critically about information, questions that push them to come to their own conclusions based on the information they can find.

I am not sure the Danish authorities have gone that far, yet. At least the story does not describe how assessment has changed. Their approach seems to be to constrain significantly the amount of time students have. As the story says:

Surprisingly, students themselves admit it’s not easy to cheat using the Internet during an exam. According to the JP news agency, students are given a very short period of time in an exam to sift through the mounds of data they can call up on the Internet to answer a single question.

One can argue that this is somewhat authentic, given that we often have limited time to come up with answers to questions.

I would prefer that the time limit be somewhat relaxed and greater attention paid to the kinds of questions being asked. The reason for this is that when we change modes of assessment the first thing that needs to change is how we teach. So opening examinations to the web will perforce change how and what teachers teach. Whether we like it or not, teachers teach to the test. And there is nothing wrong with that fundamentally, particularly if the assessment is authentic and valid. And that can only be a good thing.

What one cannot question is the fact that the Education ministry’s ideas are right on the mark. As the story concludes:

Training students to master the art of sorting through heaps of information is one of the Education Ministry’s main goals in the project. “The students have to learn to sort according to the quality of information found on the Internet,” said Keld Larsen, headmaster at Arhus State High School, one of the 13 participants in the trial.

That ability, to learn to assess different and large bodies of information, that may often contradict each other, is a critical skill and I am glad to learn of this effort. I wish more schools would follow suit with such initiatives.

One of the criticisms of this approach is that students would not learn the content. However, I really see this as a fallacy. Making sense of information requires a “primed” mind, a mind that has schemas that allow you to make sense of the information. Consider for instance, a question about the Pythagorean theorem. Do you really think a student with no background knowledge and understanding of the mathematics behind the theorem can answer a sophisticated question about the topic with little or now background knowledge of the topic? Not at all.

The flip side of using the web after we think learning has occurred (since exams are seen as a measure of learning) is how we can use the web before learning. Sean Nash over at Nashworld has a great post about schemas (what I, in a comment on his post called, priming) titled Prior Knowledge and the Flow of Learning, where us provides a rational and an example of how the web can be used to help students develop deep background knowledge prior to learning. If that seems somewhat paradoxical (learning before learning? Huh?) remember what Pasteur said, Chance favors the prepared mind. Just replace “chance” with “learning” and maybe this will make sense.

Image: Soctech