In conversation (about two weeks ago) with a friend (he has been away from the country — in the Democratic Republic of Congo — for some time now, and only just returned), he was sufficiently impressed by the way the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) conducted the last qualifying examinations for entry into tertiary institutions in the country. Apparently, a little over 48 hours passed between when he took his son for the qualifying examinations, and when JAMB sent confirmation of results to the candidate by short message service.
No doubt, technology has played a useful role in the strides that mankind has taken since it became the dominant species on this planet. Less debatable is the fact that information and communication technology (ICT) promises to be the most disruptive technological experience that mankind has had over this period. This as much about ICT’s absolute contribution to our lived spaces — word processing, and number-crunching — as it is about the new values it is extracting from other spheres of life.
That said, when it comes to examinations testing, especially for multiple choice format questions, nothing beats the use of a personal computer connected to the internet. Ease of access and convenience of use are the standard selling points for online, real-time computing. However, in the case of examinations, the use of digital technology also eliminates “cheating” as a variable, and along with this, it completely removes the sundry logistics problems associated with getting examination materials to the different venues, evacuating these materials, collating these at a central location, assigning scripts for marking, awarding scores and thereafter communicating the results.
Still, this is only a (minuscule) part of the story of computer-based testing (CBT). Dig deeper, and there are social and cultural backdrops to this process that currently counsel a re-appraisal. Several years back, an acquaintance narrated the story of a Nigerian public servant who had applied for employment with one of the international oil companies operating in the country. His test comprised putting on a computer from start, locating the folder (on the computer) where the test questions were, and taking the test.
Simple up to this point? However, the unfortunate applicant in this tale had never used a computer before. He did not know where the button was that turned the system on. Nor was he aware that both CPU and monitor had different such switches. And even if he did, he still would have proceeded up a very steep gradient trying to locate the relevant folder once the system booted. And so the entire episode was dead on arrival.
That was my first encounter with the deleterious consequences of the “digital divide”. Today, much of the discourse around this concept focusses on how to rapidly bridge the cavernous and widening economic and social gap between population categories with access to, use of, and knowledge of information and communication technologies and those for whom quotidian challenges are largely existential. Those whom, in order words, spend after-school hours street-hawking to augment their families’ incomes.
Sound economic management and inclusive policies have been advertised as panacea for economies like ours where this divide is entirely of a failed growth and development nature. Indeed, most development economists now include fast broadband, along with traditional requirements for good roads, railways, and rural infrastructure as basic development needs for economies still struggling to meet the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals.
While, therefore, JAMB’s use of the CBT qualifies as “progress” of sorts, there is a much bigger worry in the extent to which it may be excluding the scions of the “poor and vulnerable” — persons, in other words whose acquaintance with the personal computer may not stand them in good stead for taking examinations on these platforms. Even if a child could turn on the personal computer (and this is doubtful, for in the business centres where this familiarity may be honed, the systems are perpetually on) there is a variety of buttons and combinations thereof that could switch screens away from the window one is working on, or simple “freeze” the system. What to do in this circumstance? Of course, call for the invigilator, who may, or may not promptly rectify the problem. But then, remember, that these tests are usually time-based.
In the growing use of computers for examinations of the type recently conducted by JAMB, I see a sense in which certain children and their peers may be thus advantaged. They, at least, have unfettered access to the internet across innumerable platforms. But to the extent that this cohort does not exhaust the full potential available to my society, their gaining a leg in on the back of this unearned advantage necessarily leaves society that much poorer.
Of course, even poorer than those that are left behind because of this most unfair divide!