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Online examinations find favour with Unisa students

A university-wide student survey conducted by Unisa’s Department of Institutional Advancement shows that the majority of the 4 823 respondents found mid-year online examinations to be a positive experience and would, in fact, elect to again write online at the end of the year.

The comfort of the familiar: 24% of respondents indicated that they took their examinations in their combined bedroom/study areas. ‘I think one is more comfortable when writing in the comfort of one’s personal space,’ said a College of Science, Engineering and Technology student. ‘I personally thought it was better than the conventional way of writing examinations.’

This year, the usual examination jitters saw the added dimension of online examinations as a heretofore unknown experience for many students. Unisa is one of only a handful of South African higher education institutions to have pulled out all stops to ensure that students’ journey continue with minimal disruption during the Covid-19 crisis by offering the option of writing online examinations mid-year, or deferring these to the end of the year when writing at physical venues may once again be an option. Students in their numbers elected to write online, and with the exception of unavoidable early system teething problems the exercise has been a resounding success.

Yet the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and students in all of Unisa’s colleges were asked to share their impressions of the online examinations in a survey. Says Dr Lusani Netshitomboni, Acting Director of the university’s Department of Institutional Advancement: ‘The survey provides the institution with important feedback on which areas of the online examination system can be improved, and what students’ real-life experience of the exercise was. Although we knew that, by and large, it had been a success, we were still pleasantly surprised by students’ overwhelmingly positive reaction.’

Communication and support key

The university used all the communication platforms at its disposal – direct SMS messages, communiqués on the student channel, myUnisa, messaging from lecturers and colleges, and, where possible, the mainstream media – to keep students fully informed of the online examination process. In each examination session, real-time cellphone, SMS and e-mail support was provided by a team comprising the relevant lecturers, ICT specialists and, often, college executives.

This bore fruit, with 82,1% of respondents indicating that they found the university’s support and communication with them adequate in terms of the specifics of the exercise. ‘It was really great and lecturers responded in time; they were there even if it was at night,’ commented a College of Education student. ‘Our lecturers went the extra mile to ensure that they prepared us thoroughly for these exams, and the mock exams have really helped us a lot,’ said a College of Science, Engineering and Technology student.

The university took note of the concerns raised by the remaining respondents who felt that support and communication were lacking, and these are already being addressed in the planning for the year-end examinations.

Stress remains a concern

A world that has completely changed overnight is not the ideal scenario in which to introduce what, for many, is a completely new examination experience. Predictably, 33,6% of respondents found writing an online examination more stressful than writing at a physical venue.  A major contributing factor, judging by respondent comments, was the initial system challenges experienced, which saw some students having difficulty in accessing papers and uploading answers.

‘Following the to-be-expected teething problems experienced in the earliest examination sessions, we expanded the system, put in much more bandwidth and created a dedicated portal for each examination,’ says Professor Veronica McKay, Unisa’s Acting Vice-Principal for Teaching, Learning, Community Engagement and Student Support, who has been spearheading Unisa’s online examinations programme.  The real credit goes to the academics who carried the examinations and supported the students before, during and after each session. Our ICT section did not have capacity and so academics became adept at sorting out technical problems in addition to providing academic support. Testimony to the hard, dedicated work put in by staff to deal with the unusual situation in which the Covid-19 pandemic has placed universities around the world, was a recent session where we had 27 000 College of Law students writing the same examination paper online at the same time – a technical feat of note, and a first for South Africa.’ Commented a College of Law student who participated in this session: ‘Anything that expands one’s experience is great. It was our first time having this challenge, but we found a way – we adapted. Next time we will be equipped with experience.’

Other stress factors were also at play, and some of them are ones that all of us are familiar with when working from home during the pandemic. ‘Writing the online exam does have its own challenges, like unforeseen interruptions (by my six-year-old son), load shedding and noisy neighbours,’ said a College of Human Sciences student. ‘However, the experience was not too daunting considering the circumstances.’

Heartening is the fact that 66,4% of respondents found writing online equally or less stressful than would be the case with a venue-based examination. ‘I found writing examinations online enjoyable and quiet,’ said a College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences student.

Cautiously optimistic

Respondents were asked whether they would opt for online examinations in future sessions, and while 66,1% answered in the affirmative, 33,9% indicated that they would not. ‘This is only to be expected,’ says Netshitomboni, ‘since for most students this was a completely new experience and the initial glitches dented confidence. However, as we continue with this system and both students and staff become used to it, it is more than likely that many more students will adopt it as the preferred way of writing examinations.’

Overwhelmingly positive

The great majority, 75,5% of respondents, indicated that they found writing online examinations a positive experience. While 24,5% indicated that they did not, the reasons provided for their experience deal almost exclusively with system issues that have since been addressed, chief of which is system capacity failures which are a thing of the past due to expansion and the introduction of backup solutions.

‘I think under the circumstances Unisa did its best to accommodate everyone during this time, said a College of Accounting Sciences student. ‘I am appreciative of all the extra support as well as the free data provided by the university.’ The stress factor also received mention: ‘It was the most relaxed I've ever been writing an exam,’ said a College of Economic and Management Sciences student.

And, finally, the social distancing requirement that gave rise to the online examinations were mentioned by many respondents. ‘It makes you feel more comfortable and safer to write at home rather than at a venue,’ said a College of Graduate Studies student. ‘At a venue I'll be more worried by getting infected rather than the exam itself, and I'll lose focus and concentration. The masks and shields will be uncomfortable to write with, where at home you can comfortably write without them.’

Key findings at a glance

* By Philip van der Merwe, Editor: External Publications, Unisa Department of Institutional Advancement

Related article: Behind the scenes at one of SA's largest online exams

Publish date: 2020/07/08