CDE Student Fellows are University of London distance learning students who are appointed to work on short research projects supervised by CDE Fellows. One such project recently involved a survey of distance-based students’ experiences of online assessment. The results from this project were presented by one of the two student fellows involved, Ellen Hauf, who had been working under the supervision of Stylianos Hatzipanagos and Alan Tait. Her colleague, Hannah Shekhawat, was listed as a co-presenter although she was unable to attend.
After introducing herself and her colleague, and outlining the role of Student Fellows, Hauf explained that they had interviewed a total of 24 distance students at London University from different countries and programmes: a very small but as far as possible representative sample of the over 50,000 distance students taking London University courses. Slightly more than half of these interviews took place in 2021, and the rest in 2020. Most interviews were conducted face to face, and no time limit was set although few lasted more than 30 minutes.
Hauf reported that, overall, these 24 students reported very positive experiences of online assessment. They overwhelmingly felt that they had more control over their environment and that they had been less anxious throughout the experience. Transport to traditional exam centres would have been more expensive and exposed students to the possibility of delays and, sometimes, to the risk of catching Covid-19. A number of students, however, thought that questions had been made harder to compensate for the more flexible nature of the assignment.
About two-thirds of students – slightly more from the 2021 cohort – reported that they were extremely happy with the way the university had run their assessments. Where there were discontents, these were largely in two areas: privacy (or the lack of it) and timely information. Students overwhelmingly preferred less intrusive methods of ensuring assessment integrity, such as running submitted assignments through Turnitin to, for example, being required to prove their identity with passports or videoing their study areas. Students with families or demanding jobs (or both) would have liked up to six months’ notice of their precise exam arrangements, which many exam centres have been unable to provide.
There was a very wide variation in the length of the ‘submission window’, or the time between the release of the exam paper or other assessment and the deadline for returning it completed. One MSc programme in public health offered a 24-hour window, whereas some law programmes required submission within 3-4 hours. Overall, students felt happy with the windows that they had been offered, whatever these were. They also appreciated being able to type, rather than hand-write, examination scripts although some reported difficulties with including, for example, equations or diagrams. Some programme directors are looking at training students in the use of software to create these.
Most exam periods were set in UK time, which caused problems for very remote students with short submission windows. One student reported having to start an exam at 4 am local time; she performed much worse in that exam than either her previous record or her results on a similar course with a more sensible start time would have suggested. This is clearly an equality issue affecting students in some countries. Another possible issue of the same kind, access to IT, proved not to be a problem. About 90% of interviewees reported no technical difficulties, and the other 10% only experienced short-lived problems that were easily solved. Interestingly, many reported feeling responsible for ensuring their own access and, for example, buying data so they could maintain connectivity even if their local Internet went down. Another problem that occasionally affected students in some countries was professional bodies not recognising the validity of online exams (one example of this was law in Canada).
Hauf concluded her presentation with one very encouraging finding: every one of the students surveyed would like assessments, including exams, to be conducted online in future. They greatly appreciated the trouble that the university had taken to adapt to the pandemic and provide them with an opportunity to complete their modules and courses. Almost any option would have been better than cancelling exams in 2020 and forcing them to postpone their qualifications, and their experiences had been far better than this suggests. The students did, however, provide two pieces of advice for staff who are keen to improve on this already impressive performance: take note of time zones when setting online exams, and provide as much detail as possible about how the system will work as far ahead of the exam date as possible.