Moves to allow students sitting GCSEs and A-Levels to refer to Google in the exam room have been backed by an academic at Huddersfield University.

Mark Dawe, head of the exam board the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA assessment group, sparked controversy in the media by suggesting it was inevitable that search engines such as Google would be allowed in public examinations.

Roy Fisher, professor of education and head of the Department of Initial Teacher Education at the university, said he supported the suggestion, arguing testing students’ analytical skills was more important than what they had remembered from revision.

Prof Fisher said: “This reflects some older and from time to time recurring debates regarding whether or not textbooks, or indeed ‘crib sheets’, should be allowable in the context of formal examinations.

“One argument in favour of using search engines in examinations is that this would reflect the way that people learn in the 21st century. Another is that what an examination should be about is testing ‘understanding’ as opposed to pure ‘recall’.”

The Campaign for Real Education branded the suggestion that students should refer to Google in exams as “dumbing down” at a time of “crisis” in educational standards and argued that “we do have to test what children are carrying in their heads.”

But Prof Fisher said what should people be carrying in their heads should substantially comprise analytical skills, adding: “Perhaps this should be augmented by a Gradgrindian reservoir of ‘facts’, but the extent to which that is of real value is contestable.

“With information/knowledge effectively ‘on tap’ from the doughty search engines – and relatively cheaply so – then the possession of it is surely less important than it once was. The ability to absorb and retain details is important, but it seems fundamentally less valuable than the ability to analyse and to question.

“Using information intelligently and critically seems crucial, memorising it less so. The ‘fact’ is that the means and the forms of knowledge production are radically shifting in new and previously largely unanticipated ways.”

Prof Fisher added: “Rituals and traditions bear heavily on what carries status in educational circles, and especially so when it comes to examinations, but being open to change is how progress is made in education, as in other fields.”