Opinion: NAPLAN - Looking to the future

Educators have an obligation to prepare children not only for the world that is here, but also for the world that’s coming, says ACARA CEO, Robert Randall.

The 1989 movie Back to the Future predicted big things for life in 2015. Some of the predictions of this future technology-driven life were not so silly – video calls, meals that cook within minutes and wearable technology.

Others are yet to be realised (I’m still waiting for hover boards and flying cars).

But Back to the Future did give us one important lesson – that technology is not to be feared. It should be embraced and used to make life better.

Technology has helped to refine and improve industries and services that we all use. Technology has allowed society to adapt and respond to the demands of a modernising and maturing world.

Across industries and services it has simplified complex activities, and significantly reduced time spent on others. It has dramatically changed how people interact with each other and brought people living apart or across the world into closer contact.

The Guardian recently reported that technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed. Technology has transformed many sectors - banking, travel, and telecommunications are great examples - for the better for everyone.

This should also be true for education and how we go about helping children to learn and how we assess their learning. ACARA is focused on making a difference to the learning of young Australians, particularly those students born in the 21st century and who will live and work in a technology-based world.

However, we understand that change is challenging and is not straight forward. We understand that there are some who prefer the old ways.

There are no logical reasons why education should not join the industries and services in Australia and internationally that are using technology for the better. Some would say it already has, and agree that using technology can improve the way our children learn and the way their learning is assessed.

This is why education ministers have agreed that NAPLAN will move online from 2017.

We know that change needs to be justified and explained and we will continue to explain why we are seeking to improve NAPLAN, why change is justified and how it will be achieved.

We welcome and encourage all with an interest in improving education to read about what we are doing it and share their interest and, if they exist, concerns.

So let me respond to some common concerns.

Marking of a child’s writing by a computer? Auto-marking of writing has been proven to be a viable option across the world, and our own research tells us that it works in the NAPLAN context.

After training, computers were able to mark children’s writing the same as two human markers. And marking a child’s test in this way doesn’t mean we don’t care about children. Auto-marking will allow NAPLAN results to be returned to teachers and parents in as little as two weeks (or less).

As such, NAPLAN results can be better used to drive improvement.

However, we have more research to do before computer marking of NAPLAN writing is confirmed. We will be thorough in providing information and, if need be, we will run two NAPLAN marking systems, involving human markers and computer marking for a period of time to ease the transition.

But what about the children, some argue. They can’t possibly want or need this.

In our research to date, involving children right across Australia, they are telling us they feel happier taking the test online and feel no disadvantage. There are still more studies to go, but the initial feedback from the children themselves is promising and supportive. They are looking forward to the future, and to using technology.

And equity. The argument is that NAPLAN should not move online because not every child has access to technology and those children with more limited access may be disadvantaged. Using technology is part of the teaching and learning process for all schools.

As technology plays a bigger part in education, school authorities will continue to review practices to use technology effectively and efficiently, to improve teaching and learning, not because NAPLAN is moving online.

Based on what young people do in NAPLAN now and our research to date, we know that an average year 3 student response to a NAPLAN writing question is about 150 words. Typed, this is about 9 or 10 lines and there is no correlation between typing more and a better result.

People discuss building an education system for the 21st century. Like the creators of Back to the Future, we are looking further than this to a world that doesn’t yet exist but most certainly includes technology as its base.

We have an obligation to be preparing children for the world that’s here and the world that’s coming.

Robert Randall is the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA)