With universities having to adapt to the threat of COVID-19, what effect will this have on the examination process?
During the early stages of the pandemic, when the nature of the coronavirus was still unknown, most universities made the decision to temporarily avoid all in-person contact and close their campuses completely.
Without a clear understanding of how the coronavirus operated and the most effective measures to prevent its spread, collecting students into one room for a prolonged period was no longer considered safe.
However, examinations are a critical part of the higher education process and a necessary step in providing students with accurate grades.
According to the University Grants Commission (UGC) of India, cancelling crucial higher education examinations altogether was simply not an option.
The UGC stated: “Academic evaluation of students is a very important milestone in any education system. The performance in examinations gives confidence and satisfaction to the students and reflects competence, performance, and credibility that is necessary for global acceptability.”
So, with the importance of these examinations acknowledged, how can universities continue to assess students during this crisis?
With the status of the coronavirus pandemic constantly evolving, universities must allow for some flexibility when it comes to conducting university exams.
Alongside their statement released in July on the importance of exams, the UGC demanded that “final year college exams must be held by September 30.”
However, they also acknowledged that there must be a degree of flexibility to this demand, given the unpredictability of the coronavirus and its effect on the lives of students.
To ensure no student is at a disadvantage as a result of the pandemic, the UGC confirmed that if students were unable to attend the final year exam, whether online or in-person, colleges and universities may present another opportunity “as and when feasible.“
If universities don’t allow for some degree of flexibility when rescheduling exams, the academic performance of students who find themselves in difficult circumstances as a result of the pandemic is likely to suffer.
Online exams: The challenges
To avoid in-person contact altogether, some universities have opted to conduct the majority of their exams online.
In March, Imperial College London successfully assessed their 280 sixth-year medicine undergraduates via two online exams.
According to Dr Amir Sam, Imperial’s head of undergraduate medicine; “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first digital ‘open book’ exam delivered remotely for final-year students.”
Since then, universities across the world have followed suit, however, they have faced several challenges along the way.
One of the most challenging aspects of conducting remote exams is ensuring students aren’t using the internet or other resources to assist them.
When students take exams without an invigilator present, they may find it easier to search for answers elsewhere or to discuss the process with others.
Each exam will have a different set of rules, but when conducted remotely, it’s more difficult to ensure students abide by the rules that are set.
Companies such as ProctorU are being used by universities to heighten their exam security by providing the technology needed to detect fraudulent activity during exams.
However, privacy concerns have been raised by many university students over exam software intended to prevent cheating.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, students at the University of Sydney were left “unsettled” after a remote exam where they were asked to reveal their workspace via webcam, provide personal details, and were told that “any noise or movement you make will be recorded, reviewed, and stored for two years.”
Other issues regarding online exams include ensuring students have a strong enough internet connection to take part in the exam, and that the time zone of each student needs to be taken into account during the planning process.
Online examinations: The advantages
Online exams are still a new phenomenon at higher education institutions, so there’s a lot to learn regarding the wide-spread implementation of these new exam processes.
However, during a period where in-person contact comes with many risks, online exams are a great way of maintaining momentum in higher education and to ensure the learning process doesn’t ground to a halt.
There are also several arguments that suggest that online exams will remain a key feature of the higher education experience even after the worst of the coronavirus crisis has subsided.
According to SI News, the process of marking in-person examinations is “expensive and highly ineffective,” considering the cost of the assessor and the “extensive manual data entry” which is subject to human error.
Other benefits include a significant reduction in the paper used and time required to conduct and mark the exams.
Before the pandemic hit, the University of Bergen, the University of Oslo, and the University of Agder were all in the process of adopting digital exams with great success. At the University of Oslo, 75% of all exams are now conducted digitally.
For more information on how universities are adapting to the coronavirus crisis, please see our latest report: September 2020 and Beyond: Coronavirus Insights from Current and Prospective International Students.