COVID-19: Universities go for blended, virtual examinations

Dec 07, 2020

Traditional exams have been abandoned for thousands of students this year and universities have moved on to transform the assessment processes; alongside teaching and learning provision.


In March this year, all education institutions were closed to avoid the spread of COVID-19.  But with the end of the academic year fast approaching; one question is on the mind of every student, parent, teacher and minister: what about exams as university closures are prolonged?

But universities are switching to blended, virtual and open-book examinations to keep afloat. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out all over the world, little did students know that this was a time for a real turn-around of examination processes in universities in the country. But here it is. 

Traditional exams have been abandoned for thousands of students this year and universities have moved on to transform the assessment processes; alongside teaching and learning provision.

To handle the continuing students, some universities have switched to blended learning, and other universities are entirely using online examination systems. 

Some of these universities like Victoria University, ISBAT, Ndejje university and the International University of East Africa have entirely been teaching and examining their students online. 

Some public universities like Gulu and Kyambogo university just decided to keep students at home. They have not taught continuing students and will not in any way have them examined at the end of this academic calendars; meaning students may have to go for dead years. Sources at the university say it was a costly venture to lecture students online and could not easily take it up. 

Other universities have been lecturing online, but have resolved to get their students return to do examinations at the campus. Such universities include Makerere University and Busitema University. This is part of what is called blended learning. 

Blended learning (also known as hybrid learning) is when traditional classroom teaching is combined with online learning and independent study, allowing the student to have more control over the time, pace and style of their learning. 

At Makerere University, continuing students this week started their end of semester examinations, much as they have been studying using online platforms. This is part of what is called blended learning; which so many universities have embraced to have students do their final and end of semester examinations. 

The deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic Assoc. Prof. Umar Kakumba says that much as continuing students are studying online, "The National Council for Higher Education cleared us to set and administer examinations, in a controlled manner at the university." 

"Students will spend about six weeks doing end of semester examinations. We will ensure that there is no congestion and the SOPs are adhered to," he explained.

He also noted that by the time the continuing students start their examinations, "The finalists will have completed their own examinations to create for them more," he explained. 

Makerere University has already released the timetable for the end of Semester Two examinations for the finalists.  The timetable is for the Academic Year 2019/2020.

Examinations for finalists commenced on Monday, November 16, 2020; while those for continuing Students will have commenced this week; November 30, 2020." 

The university was re-opened on October 15, 2020; for finalists, and the continuing students have been studying online. This follows the closure of all academic institutions way back in March 18, 2020, by President Yoweri Museveni to avoid the spread of COVID-19. 

At Busitema university, the vice chancellor, Paul Waako says that they have been teaching the continuing students online. 

"Once the finalists are done with examinations, we will, in a phased manner get in the continuing students to do their examinations. We do not have a virtual online system because the number of students is high. Our plan will assure us of an effective and authentic examination process." 

 He also notes that students have effectively done online learning and are set for the examinations. 

Makerere University Business School is also conducting examinations at campus, much as it has been teaching online. 

The Vice Chancellor of Kyambogo University, Prof. Elly Katunguka, recently told New Vision, "We have not been teaching students online due to the high cost implication. This means we cannot also do examinations online."

What are private universities doing? 

Some private universities have embraced online examinations; and these include ISBAT University, Ndejje University, International University of East Africa, Victoria University, and Clarke International University

At Victoria University, the Deputy Vice Chancellor Dr. Lawrence Muganga says the university is now using the Proctor software for examinations, benchmarked on the Athabasca University; which is biggest learning University in the world based in Canada

Proctored exams are timed exams that you take while proctoring software monitors your computer'ss desktop, webcam video and audio. 

Dr. Muganga says that the data recorded by the proctoring software is transferred to a proctoring service for review. 

He says that when a student sits for an exam, inbuilt in the software, it monitors the students' movement, time spent on the exam, follows facial recognition and any attempt to leave the computer; till the exam is finished. "After the set time, it locks itself and delivers what the student has answered." 

"This type of examination," Dr. Muganga says, "Is added to the bit where a student also answers an open book examination." 

"Under open book, questions are sent to students and they answer them within 24 hours. They are at liberty to read all books they need. They later come to campus; on scheduled time for a few minutes to defend before a panel what they wrote. This helps confirm if they did the work themselves." 

The average of the Proctor exams and the open-book examination is taken to get scores for students at this university. 

At ISBAT, Thomas Denish, the head of Quality Assurance says their online examinations has been used a number of times and it works for them.  

The Dean of the faculty of ICT at ISBAT Dr. Sambasivan Gnanasekaran says the university is using the exam cell system. "It can set exam criteria such as duration, scheduling of exams, set question patterns, and deposit the university's question bank with appropriate access rights. Appropriate digital evaluation system (DES) is made available for certain sections of the exams and supplemented by descriptive evaluation by authorized assessors." 

Exams have to be done in a specific browser. Dr. Gnanasekaran explains that Safe Exam Browser (SEB) opens a web browser window without navigation elements and locks the computer into a kiosk mode, which prevents a student from switching to other applications or quitting untimely. 

SEB enables secure exams on unmanaged computers like students' own laptops as well as in a managed environment. SEB has been integrated with the university's Learning Management Systems (LMS) for a safe digitally proctored and audited exam process. 

Dr. Gnanasekaran also notes that SEB disables all the standard keyboard combinations that usually invokes various tasks, and it directs students only through the exam enabled mouse functions. 

In this case, the Dr. Gnanasekaran says the examiner can adjust the time interval for audit trailing as per the advice from the university's exam management committee. "These audit trails are scrutinized by the Exam committee, to avoid malpractices. Any such cases of malpractice found are dealt with by the committee for further necessary action," he explains. He says that this system is benchmarked on the Indian universities. 

At Ndejje University, Prof. Eriabu Lugujjo says that students especially for engineering will be coming to campus in a phased manner to do their examinations. "They will have to be on site and get assessed in smaller groups; as part of blended learning." 

"The rest of the students, will do online examinations, especially those who are who are on humanities courses. We are still working out measures to make sure that we process the integrity of the examination process. " 

At the International University of East Africa, the finalists and continuing students did their examinations using an online system that the university built. Dr. Emeka Akaezuwa, the IUEA university Vice Chancellor says, "All the students who were being taught online have done their examinations and we expect them to graduate on December 10, this year."  

Dr. Emeka says that the university has built its own online system which monitors the students and avoids the cheating of the examinations.

Challenges of administering examinations 

Makerere admits that it will be costly to have examinations while following up the required SOPs.

Prof. Kakumba says that the process will be slower since we need more space for few students at any given time. 

In the past, the university could conduct examinations within just a month, but they will now need close to two months to finish the examinations. 

Some students who are coming from far off areas, are also now struggling to get accommodation around Kampala to sit for examinations. 

Alice Bagonza, a Year Two student at Makerere says, "I'm looking for a rental for two months to be able to do my final examinations. We did not imagine they will call us on  short notice." 

Another student, Jessica Nabwami says constant movement from Entebbe to Makerere to do examinations, since she cannot go back to the hostel, "Is complicated." 

"Some of our parents are not ready to spend money on hostels, just to sit for examinations," Nabwami explains. 

Virtual learning and examination which is being used in universities, is also costly. The universities have to spend hundreds of millions to put up such system; which some educationists say, can best work in smaller university enrollments. It partly explains why public universities are going for blended learning, other than focusing on lecturing and examining students on online platforms. 


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