Covid-19 school closures: student experiences of online learning

By Katy Finch
Published 19 Apr 2021

AQA researcher Katy Finch explores what students really think about online learning and the future role of technology in assessment.

With digital technology playing an ever-increasing role in the lives of students and their education, particularly during the school closures of the past year, it’s unsurprising that there’s a growing focus on how similar technology could be used in assessment. But although it’s a regular discussion topic, we rarely hear the views of students: what do these end-users make of it, and is this tech-savvy generation as ready to embrace it as many assume?

Last year, AQA launched a Student Advisory Group to understand young people’s perspective on exams and assessment, including the use of technology. AQA’s research team carried out a series of focus groups with the 15 students, aged 16+, to hear their views and experiences of technology in education and assessment, particularly in relation to on-screen assessments and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in marking. With the focus groups held in June 2020, the discussions inevitably featured the impact of the initial Covid-19 school closures and students’ use of technology during these times. The students expressed their opinions on all of these topics and gave examples of their experiences.

On-screen assessment

“One of my fears is that it’s yet another tool that’s going to widen the differences, not only between schools but between students”

“I think the physical exam system is quite archaic. So I feel that a transition to online exams will only be beneficial for everyone involved”

When talking about the potential for high-stakes assessments to be delivered on-screen, the participants highlighted the need for schools to have the right resources to prepare students. They raised concerns about a lack of suitable facilities in some schools and the additional inequalities that this could introduce into the assessment system. Some also suggested that there may be opportunities for students to cheat during on-screen exams. Many of the participants, however, could also see the benefits of using digital formats for their assessments. Some regarded it as an inevitable (and welcome) progression that would bring exams in line with the use of technology elsewhere in education, and beyond.

Using AI in marking

“I’m not sure if anything right now would be advanced enough to provide any serious benefit. Something like marking essays would require quite advanced natural language processing”

“It feels like it would be fairer than having loads of different examiners mark because everyone’s being marked by the same standards”

On the topic of AI and its use in marking exams, most of the participants perceived this as a likely development in the future of assessment. Some students saw it as a way to make marking fairer and remove human marker bias, yet there were concerns that current technology would not be able to cope with the more complex demands of marking.

Covid-19 school closures

“I’ve been taking online lessons this entire time. Because I’ve come to the end of my GCSE studies my school has actually been really proactive and planned out a pre-A-level course for everyone in year 11”

“My school, since we finished we’ve just been left essentially. So we don’t really get any work or anything.”

The discussions highlighted the wide variation in students’ experiences during the first Covid-19 school closures in 2020. While many of the participants received regular contact from their schools, this was not universal. Some students were set a full timetable of online classes with assessment and feedback, some were sent a weekly list of tasks to complete independently, and a small number received very little or no contact from their school. Many of the students we spoke to were keenly aware that such variation could affect student outcomes and once again introduce inequalities into the education and assessment system.

We need to keep listening to students

Overall, the students perceived that exams of the future will (and should) reflect the use of technology in education more widely and in the workforce. However, they expressed concerns about the availability of digital resources in schools and the capabilities of current technology. They also acknowledged that technology, although beneficial in so many ways, should be used with caution when it has the potential to add inequality to the system.

We obtained some really useful insights through the focus groups. We must continue to listen to the student's voice in dialogues around the future of technology in assessment.

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