In pre-Covid times, exams delivered via Moodle were limited by the availability of suitable physical spaces. Exam rooms represented a bottleneck to the number of students taking exams concurrently.
For the last year, we’ve used Moodle (and integrated platforms) to deliver the majority of our teaching and assessment online.
A visualisation of the online assessment mix at the University of Portsmouth:
In May 2020 many academics who had previously planned to deliver paper-based exams had to quickly adapt and deliver online assessments. In some cases, these required students to scan or take pictures of their work and upload these to assignments (Moodle or Turnitin) for marking.
In recent months, newer platforms to handle this workflow and ease the marking burden for academics have been developed – platforms such as Turnitin Gradescope and CrowdMark. These platforms leverage the similarities in students’ answers so academics can mark many answers at once. When time allows, we hope to be able to evaluate these platforms in more detail.
In the diagram above you can see “Assignments under exam conditions” as the meeting point between traditional essays and restricted online exams. This year we have seen a big growth in this area as academics move from paper-based written exams to time-restricted assignments. An obvious caveat here is that these haven’t been conducted under true exam conditions and so are best described as open book exams. Many digital assessment platforms now include various types of proctoring and would be able to handle remote time-restricted essays (and other assessment types) securely. There are, however, a number of ethical issues to be considered with online proctoring, and we need to proceed cautiously here.
As a University, I feel we should also be looking to expand our capacity for online assessment as over the next decade we will probably see the end of paper-based exams in favour of typed essay papers delivered online due in part to student expectations.
Academics have had a year to adapt to exams in lockdown and many have discovered the benefits of Moodle quizzes for exams that offer automatic marking. (And note that Moodle is excellent at delivering scientific and mathematical exam questions as well as longer coursework assignment submissions.) Generally speaking the Technology and Science and Health faculties deliver the majority of our Moodle quiz based exams and the number of exams has grown significantly during the lockdown. Many academics don’t want to go back to paper.
In Technology Enhanced Learning we oversee online exams and assessments in terms of supporting and evaluating the digital tools and making sure Moodle can handle the number of exams thrown at it. The number of online exams has increased substantially over the last year, all funnelled into two exam windows. As a team we work closely with colleagues in IS to provide more capacity in Moodle and with timetabling to ensure the exams are evenly distributed to avoid terminal peaks of concurrent users, providing a stable Moodle platform for all users.
Without the bottleneck of physical exam rooms, the January 2021 exams were initially weighed in the favour of academic requests around having exams earlier in the day and only using the first week of the exam window to maximise available marking time. Unfortunately, this translated into a scenario that would have presented a significant number of terminal peaks of concurrent users on Moodle. Members of TEL worked closely with the central timetabling unit to level out these peaks and with the exception of one or two slow points, we all delivered a successful exam window in January.
In advance of the May/June exams, we have gone further and set hard parameters around how many exams (quizzes) or timed assignments (Turnitin or Moodle assignments) can be timetabled in any given time slot. We’d like to thank CTU for their tireless effort to make this happen. It wasn’t an easy job to manage all the necessary requirements but it’s given us an exam timetable that looks like the image below. This really is invaluable work to the University when assessment represents so much effort by students, academics and support staff.
Our increasing reliance on online assessment means, I think, that we should investigate new technologies to support that function. Platforms such as Gradescope or CrowdMark could help relieve the marking burden; one of the many platforms such as Wiseflow or Mettl or Inspera could provide extra exam capacity (with the functionality to proctor exams if that was something the University wanted to do). Moodle, with its advanced quiz and assignment capabilities, would continue to play a key role.
I believe we will get through this coming assessment period well, but as our reliance on online assessment grows so must our technologies to support it.
As a University the Covid-19 pandemic has been a driver for the uptake of online learning and assessment. As a University community, we need to harness this positive momentum and diversify our offering of assessment platforms to support students and staff.