Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Is It Time To Integrate The Internet In Exams?

The World Wide Web has been around for quite a while now. If you have lost track of time being buried in the continuous stream of data all around you in the form of notifications popping up, RSS feeds refreshing and news reports streaming all around you on all the devices you own, then the Web has been around for public use for about twenty years now.
I very recently finished high school. During the examinations, I couldn’t help but wonder about the concept of examinations and how ridiculously outdated the procedure of examinations are in the context of how developed this world has become. The Internet has become a very indispensable tool. It entertains us, helps us socialize and stay updated with everything that is happening in the world. But in the context of what I am arguing in this post, it helps us learn, collaborate and work. The Internet is very developed, versatile and getting better all the time.

 I realized the following things:
  • When I grow up and start working, I will work with others.
  • I do not need to learn a lot of things I learned in high school in such great detail. I can always look them up and/or learn them when I actually need them in life (I’m looking at you, calculus).
  • We are not trained to take full advantage of computers and the web in our daily lives and to integrate them with our workflow in the future.
So what should education systems move towards? What should they aim to achieve with their students? How should classrooms work and how should exams be conducted in context of the ubiquity of the World Wide Web?

People argue against using the Internet and computers to help us in exams saying that students should be able to memorize huge amounts of knowledge. Is that really needed, though? I agree that schools should work to ensure that children have a good memory. But I think that should stop some time in middle school or continue in the form of special exercises. But do we actually need to memorize all this information that we may not even find useful despite the ease of use of search engines? Shouldn’t we rather start specializing in hat we want to learn early on instead? We have pretty short lives, as of now.

The debate of whether or not the Internet is making us stupid has raged on since time began. I’m sure almost everyone who has made their way to this post on Right Now In Tech in the corner of the Web has at least heard about, if not read the very famous The Atlantic magazine article by writer Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” This article is available in its entirety over here for those interested. In it, Carr points out how his mind has changed since the advent of the Internet. He says that he knows from experience and from many acquaintances that use of the Web has reduced attention spans and has made people impatient. You are most likely skimming over this post anyway, ready to move on to doing whatever you have already planned to do (on the Internet) in the next twenty seconds.

Carr’s article received all sorts of reactions. In fact, the Pew Internet and American Life Project collaborated with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center and conducted a study that polled 895 business executives, technologists, analysts and scientists about whether or not the ease of use of search engines is negatively impacting the human brain’s ability to work as it has been working. 76% of those experts said that by 2020, human intelligence will only increase as a result of the ease of use of search engines.

Let us rethink the way learning and exams work. Why is learning dreaded and despised among students? Why go on with procedures that children hate by telling them it is good for them and almost forcing it upon them? Someone should critically analyze why school and exams have a bad reputation among students. I can think of the following reasons:
  1. The simplest reason is what I view as similar to peer pressure. Not everyone (if educated in isolation) will grow a dread for learning. Most of us despise exams because everyone else does. Nothing much can be done about this. Or maybe we can rethink how everything works and move away from the traditional, centuries-old, factory-like learning system, embracing technology (more on this in a minute).
  2. Paired with the previous point, there is also the reason of the lack of fun procedures and interesting incentives.
  3.  There is also lack of innovation and change. This may be a bit hard to pull off without major restructuring of how the basics of education work. I now reflect upon how I have always been going to school, listening to teachers, trying to memorize all the information I have to and spurting everything out in exams – for almost eighteen years. I used up 18 years of my life doing this and frantically trying to balance it out with all the fun things I can experience on the side. Obviously, the fun stuff (movies, games, supplementary learning of topics I was actually interested in) was more interesting than the repetitive school bit.
How can technology be used in education that will make this whole system more fun for those who are currently ‘enduring’ it?

The first thing that I would like to mention is the relatively new concept of ‘gamification’. In a TEDx talk, Gabe Zichermann talks about this concept. Basically, gamification is all about introducing the concept of games and their rewards into something that is not a game: such as studying.

In the talk, he explains some experiments that he has done which show that gamification and games in general help kids to study more efficiently and achieve more in class. Gamification is an interesting idea that many web services, such as Foursquare, already use. It is something you will want to look into if you are not familiar with it.

Another thing that comes to mind is the idea of conducting exams with collaboration and with permission to use the Internet. Obviously the format of the assessment should not be the same as what we currently have. The questions will be quite complex and difficult, demanding effective use of the Internet and teamwork. Students are going to collaborate, research and use the Internet in the process later on in their lives. Why not train them to do that in school? I know many of my classmates who are 18 years or older and don’t search the Web efficiently. A very small number don’t understand the concept of search engines very well. Why are these things not taught in schools already?

I view a future where students are assessed on how critically they think, the ideas they have, how well they collaborate with others and how efficiently they use the web rather than how well they can spurt out knowledge into their exam papers. The world is changing how we think. We should learn to go with it.

Do you, readers, have anything to share? Throw anything in the comments and I will be sure to read it.