'No! the system's crashed'

Steve McCormack was one of hundreds of teachers recruited by the exam board Edexcel this summer to be an online marker. This is his diary of the experience
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It was to be a revolution. This year, Edexcel announced that about a fifth of all its exams taken by 16-year-olds in school halls and gyms - that's one million scripts - were to be marked by people sitting at computer screens, and not on paper with a pen or pencil.

It was to be a revolution. This year, Edexcel announced that about a fifth of all its exams taken by 16-year-olds in school halls and gyms - that's one million scripts - were to be marked by people sitting at computer screens, and not on paper with a pen or pencil.

After the revolution, it seemed, marking would be quicker, safer and more accurate. The plan was one thing. Reality turned out to be a little different. Software problems saw the operation totter on the verge of chaos for a few days in June, and hundreds of thousands of scripts had to be pulled from on-screen marking and returned to the paper method. Although Edexcel remain upbeat about the experience, the impression this teacher gained on his journey through the online marking jungle was less impressive.

10am, 22 May: I join the steady stream of maths teachers from up and down the country, arriving at a Hammersmith hotel to hear how online marking will be organised. Predominantly youngish teachers, average age 30, I'd say. A computer- literate generation and not a single elbow patch in sight. Over coffee, we chat and swap notes. Most of us, it emerges, have been sent the wrong contracts, and lots have not yet had the introductory paperwork and CD in the post.

The overall battle-plan is explained. Like all previous years, students will sit their exams by writing answers into A4-sized paper booklets. These will be collected and then, page by page, scanned on to ePEN, the web-based marking system driving the whole operation. Markers then visit the ePEN website from a computer at home or in school, put in a password, and mark online. It sounds easy.

27 May: An e-mail arrives asking me why I haven't registered online with the Edexcel system. I'm puzzled. I thought I had. A friend at a nearby school is similarly confused. It turns out we're all being sent, at different times, three separate login names and passwords for three different elements of the online marking jigsaw. It's causing confusion.

8 June: The paper I'm due to mark, GCSE maths, intermediate tier (non calculator), is today. More than 150,000 boys and girls are sitting behind small desks demonstrating what they've learnt in five years' secondary education.

12 June: Back at the Hammersmith hotel for what's known as the standardisation meeting. The chief examiner goes through the marking scheme, question by question, detailing exactly where we have wriggle room - to give marks where the right method has been used, but the wrong answer comes out the other end.

14 June: To gauge my understanding of the scheme, and ability to use ePEN, I have to submit 10 marked answers for each question to my team leader for checking. I'm impressed by the pains taken across the system to ensure consistency and fairness.

15 June: I've been given my wings. I am allowed to start marking online for real. Only now does the size of my task sink in. My allocation is 800 answers for each of 22 questions. That's 17,600 items. If I am going to do that in 50 hours, the time stated on my contract, I'll have to go at the rate of 352 an hour, which is about one question every 12 seconds. That sounds worryingly fast. And there's another ominous development. An e-mail arrives from Edexcel: "Please be aware we are currently experiencing performance issues with all papers on the ePEN system." It's the first of many.

16 June: Things don't start well. During my first stint online, the system crashes 10 times in an hour. Each time it does, the screen freezes or completely scrambles just after I've marked a question.

17 June: Another e-mail: "Owing to technical difficulties with ePEN, you may be experiencing problems accessing the system." Nice to be told something you know already. A pattern is emerging. During evening peak marking hours, the system is slow and often trips. Outside those times, there are fewer problems. I plod on and do what I can. But I'm only going at the rate of 200 answers an hour, a rate that would mean me taking 88 hours for the whole job.

19 June: The teachers marking one of the other maths papers, taken a few days ago, are in Hammersmith for their standardisation meeting. They're told of the computer system difficulties, but are sent home to start the online marking anyway.

20 June: My mouse work is speeding up, and as I get more familiar with the marking scheme, I get quicker at looking at the screen, deciding how many marks an answer is worth, clicking the boxes and moving on.

21 June: A new week, and I need to start making serious inroads into my mountainous task. But, 20 minutes after I start, frustration boils over. The system's slow, and it's crashed twice already. In desperation, I e-mail Edexcel's OnLineHelp. They reply, asking me to ring the helpline, which I do. When the phone is eventually answered, I'm politely told that, because they're so busy, they can't deal with any queries. But if I give them my number, they'll try to call back in two hours. Aaargh! My internal software is now nudging me close to the same edge, marked "total breakdown", which I suspect ePEN is approaching as well.

22 June: It's no better this morning; with the screen freezing every couple of minutes, progress is tortoise-like. In the evening, unaccountably, things improve, as if a blockage has been removed.

23 June: An early-morning text from a friend marking the other paper provides the explanation for last night's improvement: "They've taken us off online marking, and put us back to traditional. I've wasted 18 hours' marking." I later discover that two out of four maths papers have been sent back to paper marking. The system clearly wasn't coping with the volume. But in the letter e-mailed to markers by Edexcel, the truth has been sexed down. Making no mention at all of the system failures evident to all, it explains: "The marking period is very tight. After careful consideration, we have decided to revert to traditional methods for these papers to even out the load on our processing team." A masterpiece of PR gloss.

24 June: Light appears at the end of my tunnel. In two hours at the screen, on a very straightforward question, I get 600 items marked. There's only one freeze.

25 June: With about 10 days to go till my deadline, I still have about 10,000 questions to mark. A thousand a day is a big task, even with me now marking early morning and well into the night.

28 June: Take a break to watch Tim Henman on the telly. When his match finishes, I return to the screen. It's very slow. Everyone's logged back on. A friend who carried on marking throughout the tennis says it was running like a dream.

30 June: Our deadline has been put back a week. Thanks goodness. I would never have got it done by 5 July. But 12 July is a target I think I can hit, if I continue going at three hours or so a day.

2 July: I'm almost enjoying this now. In four hours' marking today, the screen didn't freeze once and I made good progress. Several times, too, I chuckled at kids' answers. Alongside a botched graph, one writes: "It's not right, but it looks good." On another question, I read the explanatory comments: "Haven't a clue", and "Had bad teacher".

5 July: Occasional software glitches persist, but I'm making progress. I continually wince, though, at how many kids show ignorance of simple mathematical words they first met in primary school. One in 10 seems to think "parallel" means the same as "equal" and there's confusion over what a "multiple" is, and why square centimetres are different from cubic ones.

11 July: I've made it. After approaching 70 hours at this screen, I've marked my last answer. My friend has also finished marking the papers that were hurriedly posted to her when Edexcel activated Plan B. She doesn't want to repeat the experience, even though she was paid an extra £100 for the extra marking she had to do. "I won't do this again unless I'm destitute," she says. "It's been the most stressful period of my teaching career."

Edexcel maintain that they are on course to complete all marking ahead of schedule. The difficulties, they argue, were due to home users coming online simultaneously, inevitable with a "large-scale pilot".

My own view is that online marking has many merits and is clearly here to stay. But this summer's experience is a warning. System capacity needs beefing up substantially if it's to become the norm. Right now, though, I'm looking forward to results day, 26 August, when I'll find out how the 33 boys and girls I taught this year have fared.