Friday is the day. That is when the third quarter exam period starts. It’s the most complicated ever in terms of organisation and implementation. Over the next few weeks, there are almost 600 exams with 53,000 registrations in the planning. TU Delft has informed students that it is intending to have as many exams possible proceed albeit in a modified form. This is an enormous job. As Executive Director of the TU Delft Extension School, Willem van Valkenburg explains.
Students will only hear four days in advance if their exam goes ahead and this is causing a lot of concern. Why is this the case?
“TU Delft is striving to have as many exams proceed as possible to avoid study delays. But however much we want this, it is simply not achievable just like that. There are almost 600 exams in the planning for which several solutions are needed. Many exams are done on paper and it takes time to find an alternative for this. And if you’re a teacher, you can’t just drum up an alternative. Remote teaching is taking a lot of their time, much of it their private time. And they often have children at home. On top of this, any changes have to be introduced carefully. Every change must be approved by the relevant faculty’s Board of Examiners.”
‘Studiability is the most important thing’
Can the Boards of Examiners not be a little more flexible on the rules? It is such an exceptional situation.
“The Boards of Examiners have informed us that they are being as flexible as possible, but their judgement is needed to avoid exams being declared invalid afterwards. Studiability is the most important thing right now. This is why it has been decided not to change the dates and times of the exams that will go ahead so that exams won’t clash.”
What kind of methods are available for exams at the moment?
“For smaller exams of 30 to 50 students, we advise oral exams through Skype for Business or YouSeeU (both apps in the Brightspace online learning environment, eds.). Both are GDPR proof so meet the requirements of the privacy laws.”
A teacher told us that students are not keen on oral exams as they are asked fewer questions.
“Every test method has pros and cons. The most important thing is to be able to test the learning goals of a subject through the chosen form.”
‘Everything is much more fluid in this situation’
What do you advise the teachers of subjects with large numbers of exam candidates?
“Another way to do a test is the take home assessment on Brightspace. Students do various assignments, preferably with an open book to avoid cheating. Preventing cheating is then done through asking other types of questions than normal and at a higher level. Students then have to use their knowledge to create or explain something.”
But you can still confer with your classmates, can’t you?
“We are advising teachers to put a time box on the exam. Students are given a relatively short space of time to answer the questions. Furthermore, they do not all get the same questions.”
Online proctoring, whereby students are filmed with their webcams during exams, is another option. Is this permitted in relation to privacy laws?
“Boards of Examiners used to be critical about online proctoring because of the vulnerability to hacking. But in this situation everything is much more fluid and we will have to use it more often, and only after permission from the relevant Board of Examiners. We recommend only using GDPR proof systems. Other systems are not permitted and we have to be strict in enforcing this. The Dutch Data Protection Authority is clear: you do not violate the privacy rules.”
‘Everyone needs to use the same tools’
What sort of exams will be considered for online proctoring in this round of exams?
“It can work for really big exams of 600 or 700 people at the same time, but we are not there yet. Up to now, we have only used this tool for small groups and individuals such as online students, students with disabilities and top athletes. We are currently only looking at exams with fewer than 100 registrations and that are already digital.”
An American company will scan the webcam recordings for signs of cheating. This will be done by humans only. How long will it take before the exams are checked under the circumstances?
“Normally the reviewing company, RP Now, examines the images within five days. But they won’t make this now. By the way, tests are also underway at TU Delft with a tool that uses artificial intelligence called Proctorio. I don’t have the results as yet, but it might be an option in the future.”
And then remote learning. There is a lot of discussion around Zoom in terms of security. Zoom is now frequently being used for online meetings. What do you recommend?
“TU Delft obtained a licence for Zoom this week and has emphasised that it is not to be used for critical or sensitive issues. For critical or sensitive issues, such as an online oral exam, we recommend using YouSeeU or Skype for Business. I admire the creativity and the passion that the teachers have shown these last few weeks. Still, we need to make sure that everyone uses the same tools, otherwise it will be too fragmented for students. In the end, everything is about the students and what they need to learn. This takes precedence above spending a lot of time on technology.”
‘Other projects are on hold’
The third quarter is almost at an end. What do we need for the fourth quarter to be successful?
“In any case, we want to make online proctoring available to larger groups. In addition, practicing and graduating in labs or at companies are still a challenge. These are on hold at the moment and we do not have any answers on how to proceed. Further, many teachers are now building experience in remote teaching, but there are also many who only have modules in the fourth quarter. They will have to prepare and will probably have lots of questions. Fortunately, we now have several manuals online and we hold a webinar every Wednesday with teachers for questions and comments.”
So the help desk will remain busy. How is it going there?
“The Brightspace Support help desk is working all hours of the day and night. Most of them are student assistants and luckily we have been able to deploy more. They all work from home, through email or Skype, and work through the weekends. It is doable, in part because other projects are on hold. The Extension School courses are digital so we can proceed with the existing ones, but we cannot record new courses. All kinds of renewal projects are on hold. The Faculty of Industrial Design, for example, was supposed to start a new curriculum next September. This has been postponed by a year. Neither the teachers nor the support staff have the time to work on it. Everyone has other priorities.”
What message do you have for all the teachers and students who are having to deal with so many changes?
“We must be aware that we cannot do everything perfectly. The point is to meet the learning goals. It is important to know that everyone is doing their best, but that this situation is so big and complex that things will go wrong. We have to accept that we and others will make mistakes.