Last month’s Naplan failure – which saw up to 60 percent of the Australian school students undertaking the online test experience connectivity issues and other technical glitches – has resulted in the widespread call to reassess how nationwide mandatory testing is delivered.  State education ministers, school authorities and teachers across the country were appalled when the national rollout of online testing ultimately failed, leaving students in tears and parents outraged as their tests froze or shut down partway through testing. In Western Australia alone, over 40,000 students were unable to complete their tests, causing distress among students who feared it would ultimately impact their grades and school standing.

Naplan, the annual assessment for Australian school students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, tests students’ literacy and numeracy skills as developed over time through the national school curriculum. Naplan has attracted controversy from day one, when the validity of the online testing system came under fire after it was found that students who completed NAPLAN online were disadvantaged compared with those who sat the traditional pen-and-paper tests. To date federal authorities have failed to address ongoing problems with NAPLAN testing, and last month’s massive fail has only fueled concerns about the online testing system.

The Naplan issue is symbolic of a much larger one – that of what happens when technology fails in educational settings. I myself have taught numerous classes that ended prematurely or that failed because of a technological fault. A laptop that wasn’t able to connect to a projector, an educational video that didn’t stream, a student’s presentation that failed to load. It begs the question: are we doing ourselves a disservice, depending so heavily on technology for all aspects of teaching in today’s classroom? Admittedly, more often than not technology makes things easier and there is no denying its’ power to make learning more engaging and accessible, but have we taken it too far? While we celebrate the use of emerging technologies like blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI) in education, are we becoming so excitable over the possibilities technology offers us that we forget the importance of traditional skills like handwriting and notetaking? And are we forgetting the step back we take when a computer fails to start at the start of a lesson or when we delete a major piece of work from our computer accidentally?

New York Times writer Therein Maria Konnikova in 2014 made a strong case for bringing back cursive handwriting in schools after evidence was published suggesting the links between handwriting and broader educational development run far deeper than we think. She argued that in our “money-driven quest to digitize and automate education” we are forgetting and neglecting the most important aspects of a child’s educational development. Children ought to be learning how to build sandcastles, stack building blocks and draw, not learning how to code.

We are constantly seeing the shift towards the digitalization of learning, with kindergartens increasingly equipped with iPads and class presentations now considered mediocre unless they come with brilliant audiovisual effects. Beyond primary and secondary schools, we are also seeing traditional pen and paper exams such as the LSAT becoming digitalized. July 2019 will mark the first time in 71 years the notorious exam will be delivered digitally, meaning traditional LSAT prep and possibly one day even MCAT prep will no longer involve lengthy hours of essay writing practice but the filling out of online multiple choice practice tests. 

Even employers are moving towards online testing with psychometric tests to asses potential recruits. To get an idea of how it works, potential candidates have turned to the likes of this Revelian test practice which allows them to prepare for the test. The RCAT looks for those with a high mental capacity for critical thinking. While it will not be able to replace interviews for that human touch (it’s always important for a company to assess a person’s personality and how well they will merge into an office workplace) it does give interviewers an insight into the job seeker’s psyche and ability which would not have come up during a verbal interview. This cuts down the recruitment process and allows companies to more effectively find a suitable candidate. 

Our growing dependence on technology for delivering important tasks and for storing confidential information has hurt us in the past. From the leaking of classified government information, to the millennium bug, we have experienced and seen firsthand the pitfalls and risks of technology. 

Bill Gates argues technology is failing students and schools, in its inability to personalize learning to an extent where teachers are able to figure out how to help that particular student. The pitfalls of EdTech are myriad: technology in class can be distracting (one word, Facebook), educational computer games can hurt a student’s ability to apply the same mathematical principles in the real world or to a regular equation, online testing often doesn’t allow the user to return to an unanswered question, having access to Google tempts students to simply seek answers there, and of course then there is the loss of human connection in the classroom thanks to increased computer use, which is perhaps the most dangerous risk of all. But the simplest risk is that which the Naplan incident demonstrated – throwing all our eggs in one basket is a risky move. 

By depending so heavily on computers and online platforms to deliver testing and lessons, we run out of options should the technology fail. A pen is far more dependable, far safer a choice. I know which one I would choose.