The computer keyboard has created a generation of illegibles who can no longer communicate by the written word, and university examiners have to deploy cryptographic skills to get to the bottom of scribbled answer scripts. But Cambridge University has chosen to face the problem with practical humanism. It is departing from a tradition centuries old, and may allow exams to be taken with laptops and tablets.
While liberal in principle, the move may have unintended consequences. Be prepared for lurid stories about hackers drilling into examiners’ computers to improve on answers after the exam. Besides, the delete key — which pen and paper are not equipped with — does things to writing. Examiners appreciate clarity and organisation, which the lack of the delete key enforces. Before setting pen to paper, the writer must have a fairly clear roadmap, which may explain why teachers hold on to the archaic method. But the delete button makes planning redundant. Whatever is written can be a series of afterthoughts. Pen and paper, and the computer keyboard, produce very different texts.
Ages ago, it was feared that the electronic calculator would doom mathematics, and universities resolutely banned it from exam halls. Slide rules were grudgingly allowed, on the ground that the user had to understand logarithms, at least. However, math has effortlessly survived the calculator, and writing will weather the keyboard, too. Indeed, it is a preparatory step to cataclysmic change ahead, when examination candidates may be invited to directly upload their thoughts to examiners. If examiners complain of splitting headaches, the way out would be to hand over their role to artificial intelligences. An examination would amount to having a friendly chat with a computer, which may finally lay the demon of examination anxiety to rest. And writing would become a quaintly artisanal pursuit, like hand-glazed pottery.