Across the pond in Merrie England, a little experiment is taking place.

It’s one which doesn’t seem to have hit the news much here, and at first glance it seems innocuous enough, but lean in a bit closer and you’ll find that thousands of school pupils there will sit on-screen tests in June in a major pilot scheme to see if online tests can replace traditional ones, even in key subject areas such as English and Maths.

Why are they doing this? I’d say money has a lot to do with it, and there are many that measure progress as a ratio of humans to computers.

Of course, you might say pilot schemes come and go in education and mostly nobody notices as teachers and principals are so busy sprinting just to keep up

For many on the ‘inside’, it’s a shrug of the shoulders and a Heaven-ward glance of the eyes while muttering, “What are they at now?”

In this case, guilty as I am myself of these responses, I think this one needs a deeper look.

Of the trial itself, run by AQA and involving up to 2,500 pupils from up to 100 schools, it’s a detailed look to provide indicators of what may and what may not work in their future utopia.

For what it’s worth, a second one is also being run by OCR, but it’s got a broader international focus.

In case you don’t know, AQA (Assessment and Qualifications Alliance) is one of the five examination boards in the UK, the others being OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations), our own CCEA based in Northern Ireland, and two who trade under brand names – Edexcel and Eduqas – owned by British education giant, Pearson, and the Welsh-based, WJEC (Welsh Joint Education Committee).

AQA, of course, will be quick to point out that there have been digital-based assessments for years now; most famously, the theoretical driving test, and several university admissions aptitude tests, but unsurprisingly they are a bit tight-lipped about this one – and not without good reason.

This pilot is different, very different, as it could lead to a complete revision of how we perceive a school, pupil and qualifications.

Let’s face it, lockdown started the ball rolling on this one, as it gave the educational environment the tools and skills it would have ordinarily taken them years to achieve – stable connectivity, laptop access, software, teachers being upskilled to teach online, and all the reams of codes of practice about safe online learning as well as a plethora of other things besides.

For the examining bodies and, indeed, schools themselves, it makes economic sense to look at this concept; fewer bodies in schools means less time escorting pupils in loops around corridors, cleaning toilets, spending money on pastoral issues, and spending much less money on infrastructure.

On the other hand, opponents of online learning will point to the fact students learn better in groups with a physical teacher in front of them.

However, the success of lockdown teaching was such is that this lobby have accidentally shot themselves in the foot a bit, proving it can be done, and successfully.

As for AQA, their Chief Executive, Colin Hughes, has gone on record as saying they want “real pragmatic hard evidence rather than speculative discussion” about online assessment, adding that a move to “digital assessment was only a matter of time, with the pandemic highlighting the need for resilience in the system”.

Hughes also spoke on BBC’s ‘The World at One’ about the barriers such assessment methods threw up such as schools’ locations, their equipment and internet connectivity as all being ironed out by lockdown. Yeah, right.

The second trial, run by OCR, involves a similar remit but under the aegis of what they call ‘digital mocks services’ of GCSE and AS courses.

Their pilot involves students taking assessments entirely on-screen in nine countries, across three subjects, including Computer Science and History.

For what it’s worth, they have just completed a trial of ‘digital progression tests’ in 16 countries involving 120 teachers and 1,500 students.

Firstly, there’s the EDSK lobby, a hugely influential think-tank on education and skills, which reckons that GCSEs in their current form should be scrapped anyhow, on the basis that they cost over £200,000,000 to run them, at a cost of around £50,000 per school.

While these statistics are for England, expenditure for NI would be pro rata.

As we know, money talks, and with the country looking at Covid-19 debt on a seismic scale, any way of making savings on the public purse will be looked at.

Then there’s Ofqual, the regulatory body for education in England. Their position is that large-scale standardising of tests, necessary for their inclusion into an online model, found inconsistencies in schools’ IT provision and unreliable computer connectivity connection – something we’re all too familiar with in Northern Ireland.

I’m no logistical strategist, but I’d image getting a family of five online during the school day on five different computers from half-way up the Big Dog mountain is something the liberal elite in Northern Ireland’s Education and Training Inspectorate will have to take cognisance off before their beady little eyes start lighting up at what happens in England – and that’s just for starters.

There are thousands of issues that will emerge from this study, but in short, while admitting that nothing beats the real thing, I’d say it’s a given that in five years’ time, at the very most, parts of some subjects will be available wholly online; both tuition and assessment.

To pacify traditionalists though, we’re still a long way off – if ever – from a technological idyll where schools are virtual environments and people learn units of work from whom and wherever they wish and in any format.

Looking at the holistic viewpoint, let’s not forget we have created an IT-literate school-age society of which a corollary is that these young people will gravitate towards an online model of learning with the same ease they post on TikTok; seeing their academic progress as being a kind of educational ‘Deliveroo’ or ‘Uber Eats’.

Let’s face it: as each year passes there’s more and more ways of doing all tasks, I conclude, as I type from my iPad converted into a laptop via a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. Go figure.