Isabel Nisbet, Chief Executive of UK examinations watchdog Ofqual recently caused a public stir when she called for an end to UK essays and written exams in favour of digital assessment and online tests. Many agreed with her, arguing that the education system must evolve and adapt to today’s “techno-savvy” youth, whose “natural environment” is the computer. Will this be the end for UK essays?
With enormous numbers of new websites, organisations and groups springing up across the world to champion “digital learning” and “education technology”, a great increase has been made recently in the number of classrooms using modern technology for teaching purposes, from blogs and the internet to video and audio feeds, iPads and webcams. All of this is moving UK education away from conventional forms of learning and testing, such as long, handwritten essays, in favour of shorter, more dynamic methods of teaching and assessing pupils’ knowledge.
Walking into a modern UK classroom, you are as likely to be confronted by digital collages, web animation and spoken presentations as by piles of old-fashioned essays, painstakingly written out by hand. And whilst it is of course true that laptops and computers still allow for essays to be written digitally and e-mailed to teachers, the impetus seems to be carrying education in a very different direction indeed.
The trend is moving away from traditional teaching and learning methods towards newer, more exciting and engaging resources, where students learn by assimilating information from digital sources; use the internet to share and question their knowledge with others and sometimes even communicate with their teachers via text messages and e-mails. As abbreviated “text speak” and 140 character ‘tweets’ suggest, all things electronic and technological seem to put great emphasis and importance on brevity and shorthand. As digitalisation heralds an age where education and technology become more and more intertwined, this may well be the beginning of the end for essay writing throughout the academic world.
And in fact, in may not even be such a bad thing. Whilst critics and fans of traditional education methods are quick to condemn new digital learning styles as frivolous and inefficient, research has shown that the use of new technology has actually allowed education to explode out of the classroom and reach further than the humble written essay has ever allowed it to before. Suddenly children are able to share classroom blogs with their peers in other continents, language students can receive “vocab texts” daily, and pupils can be reached by their teachers anytime, anywhere in the world.
It has been argued that essay writing allows students fully to show the extent of their knowledge and to express their theories and ideas in a clear, serious academic format that cannot be matched by technical wizardry and visual aids. Of course the use of computers and the internet also allows for a greater risk of plagiarism and cheating; issues that will have to be carefully considered and attended to alongside the growth of education technology. But its critics fail to realise that the most exciting aspect of digital education is the sense of belonging and connection it gives to students and educators the world over, and the awakening sense of possibilities and expanding horizons it allows to students of every type and inclination. It gives them a voice and a huge diversity of methods of self-expression, a means of ‘joining in’ with learning in a manner that makes sense and ‘speaks’ to them, regardless of their strengths and weaknesses or how traditionally ‘academic’ they may be. It would be difficult to argue that the old fashioned written essay can make the same claim.