We know that content memorization must no longer the goal of our learning programs; what our goal must be is that students can make the most sense of the voluminous and fast-accelerating quantity of information which will forever be at their fingertips, and about which they must be able to think critically, to select, to evaluate, to apply, and to amend as they tackle challenging problems.

So why shouldn’t our school-tests evaluate our students ability to do exactly this?  Why not structure tests appropriately, and then invite and welcome (and require) our students to use their computers on their tests? Isn’t this real world, and real life, preparation?

Radical maybe, but it is happening.   In Denmark, for instance.

At five to nine, the room falls silent. CD-roms and exam papers are handed out together. This is the Danish language exam. One of the teachers stands in front of the class and explains the rules. She tells the candidates they can use the internet to answer any of the four questions. They can access any site they like, even Facebook, but they cannot message each other or email anyone outside the classroom.

The teachers also think the nature of the questions make it harder to cheat in exams. Students are no longer required to regurgitate facts and figures. Instead the emphasis is on their ability to sift through and analyse information.

Minister for education in Denmark, Bertel Haarder, says: “Our exams have to reflect daily life in the classroom and daily life in the classroom has to reflect life in society.  The internet is indispensible, including in the exam situation. I’m sure that is would be a matter of very few years when most European countries will be on the same line.”

The fine minds are edutopia are inquiring also: should students be able to use technology to access information during tests?  At present, only 18% of edutopia readers (admittedly, these readers are hardly a representative sampling of the breadth of values among American educators) vote no; 47% vote maybe, and 35% join me in voting yes.

The comments on the edutopia piece are valuable; check them out if your are as interested in this topic as I am.   Mark DeSalvo wrote powerfully:

If the exams are a reflection of real-world processes and applications, then the appropriate tools should be made available and used to their fullest ability. If we bottle up all that we believe is important and dwindle it down to a test measuring something related to god-knows-what, and expect that this end result is what everyone should know and be able to do, then forget technology, not even quality instruction is necessary because teaching to the test gets you there faster.

The tools they are using now don’t compare to what is coming in 5 years and many adults don’t even know how to use the full extent of their cell phones now! Technology is what makes us jump in generations. The reason we are stalled is that “conservative types” cling on to what they consider is the tried and true, back to basics. Nothing wrong with the chisel and stone for publications either, but I sure am glad I’m not a stone mason with today’s information.

Cheating is probably the primary concern of this approach: it is nearly impossible to absolutely block email, im’ing, and other types of online collaboration.   But we know students who really wish to cheat can often do so anyway, and my school employs an honor-code integrity system to ask for respectful adherence, and that would apply here too.   The most thoughtful and intentional teachers are already working to combat cheating by asking of students they complete meaningful and rewarding tasks which students value in their own right, and are simply too challenging too allow for easy faking whether you really know the stuff.

The question that is begged hereupon is of course whether collaboration is such a sin: surely we want our students to be adept on-line collaborators in every challenge they face.   My sympathies are here, but we also do need to be able to evaluate whether individual students are gaining the thinking skills they individually need for success.

Testing must change too: open-computer testing, or open-info testing, or info-access testing, can only work when the tests demand rich thinking, effective analysis of ideas and information and effective synthesis of ideas and information.    Fortunately, we do see developing the kind of assessment that does this, which is articulated in pieces like Marc Chun’s article on performance task assessment and Ted McCain’s book Teaching for Tomorrow.

At our school, St. Gregory, we are taking first steps, only really available now that we are a 1:1 laptop school.   Dr. Morris is taking this approach on a pilot basis in 10th grade Chemistry, and the early experiments have been very positive.  Coming soon on my blog, 21k12blog.net, : a video of Dr. Morris and his students speaking about open-info testing.

What do readers think of open-computer testing?