Exams during the coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus is forcing Swiss universities to quickly rethink their operations. How, for instance, do they carry out forthcoming spring semester final exams both virtually and securely?

Text: Nathalie Roth, published on 06.05.2020

Face-to-face classes at Swiss universities have been discontinued for this semester; university courses are only taking place virtually. But what about exams? Naturally, universities want to see their students finishing their studies on time, despite the coronavirus crisis. So the logical solution would appear to be making not just learning, but exams virtual as well. After all, there are numerous options for web and video conferencing, and written exams can easily be submitted using the Learning Management System, which is already in use at all universities.

But things are not quite as simple as they seem at first glance. Semester exams see several hundred students taking part, all of whom must sit for the exam simultaneously and online – for both the written and oral elements. And it is not just the technology that is being severely tested. How do you ensure that students sitting for online exams from home don’t cheat? How do you guarantee that students taking oral exams by web conference aren’t hiding earpieces under their hair, with someone feeding answers into their ears? Or that there isn’t someone simply sitting under the desk whispering answers?

Even with written exams, you cannot guarantee that the student who logged into the exam environment is the person actually sitting at the keyboard. These questions and more are currently preoccupying universities; because while students sitting for electronic exams is not new, under normal conditions they are right there in the universities, with their identities verified and invigilators watching them.

Verifying the identity of students when it comes to online exams carried out from home remains one of the biggest challenges facing universities. Some universities are getting around the problem by moving the exams to much larger premises or postponing them until the autumn semester. Others rely on the honesty of their students and have them sign a code of honour before the online exam. Despite the coronavirus crisis, the majority of Swiss universities are now conducting their semester exams online as planned, and relying on their e-assessment experts.

eduhub: développer ensemble des solutions pérennes

The Special Interest Group for e-Asssessment – a sub-community of the Swiss e-Learning Community eduhub – is made up of e-assessment specialists from Swiss universities. The SIG meets regularly to exchange views and advise on open questions, with almost every Swiss university represented. Weekly virtual coffee breaks are also currently taking place for more informal chats. Members compare experiences and seek solutions together. This exchange among experts is extremely important and valuable, especially during the current coronavirus crisis – finding solutions together is usually a better and more sustainable approach than going it alone. 

By bringing e-learning experts into contact with each other, SWITCH aims to help the university community make efficient use of the opportunities presented by digitalisation.

Safe Exam Browser put to the test

SWITCH has been supporting the SIG since its inception in 2013, and is also championing the Swiss open source project Safe Exam Browser (SEB) – a browser that makes electronic exams secure. The SEB Consortium was established in 2015 by ETH Zurich and SWITCH, and now boasts 21 members from throughout the world. E-assessment was already playing an important part in the Swiss university landscape as far back as 2015, but at that time nobody could ever have imagined how important a functioning and ready-to-use infrastructure and expert community would come to be, and how quickly they would need them.

Now we know. The coronavirus pandemic has turbo-boosted digitalisation at Swiss universities. But even after coronavirus, e-assessment will continue to grow in importance, because the digital transformation is profound, changing university teaching from the ground up. So it would be a good idea for the Swiss university community to stay on the ball and drive development of the Safe Exam Browser – and not just in times of crisis.

About the author
Nathalie   Roth

Nathalie Roth

A qualified translator and interpreter, Nathalie Roth has worked for SWITCH since 2009. She looks after the Swiss e-learning community eduhub. Before joining SWITCH, she worked as an e-learning author at a Swiss IT firm.


What is SWITCH’s role in eduhub?

SWITCH sees its role as that of an "enabler", meaning that the Foundation coordinates the eduhub, and organises and finances all community events. SWITCH also maintains and hosts the eduhub website and sends the weekly newsletter. The Educational Technology Working Group (ETWG) specifies eduhub’s substantive direction. It comprises the leaders of the e-learning support centres at Swiss universities.

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