Unisa students unhappy with online exams

Unisa students left disgruntled
Unisa students left disgruntled

Unisa’s decision to conduct open-book digital examinations as part of this semester’s assessments has sparked outrage among some students.

City Press understands that the decision has not been welcomed by a number of students, who raised several issues.

These include the possibility of the high volume of exam scripts clogging the system, and poorer students complained about a lack of data to download exam papers and then upload their answers. Other students were worried about their “online typing skills”.

Some students were concerned they would be stigmatised for qualifying by passing open-book exams.

However, Unisa defended the decision last week, saying the online exams were in line with the Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown social distancing regulations. It said that, despite the students’ concerns, the exams would go ahead as scheduled this month.

Unisa said the open-book exam option was one of the methods in the university’s assessment policy that had been approved by all the relevant stakeholders.

“In addition, the National Student Representative Council [NSRC] was also consulted regarding the decision,” the university said.

Those students who opted not to take their examinations during the May-June session would automatically be deferred to the October-November session

But NSRC secretary-general Amukelani Ngwenya said they had only proposed exams not based on venue to the university management, which had agreed to this, but not to the open-book option.

“But as to whether it will be an open-book or closed-book [exam] will entirely be a decision of the academics,” Ngwenya said.

“Ours is to ensure that our students are assessed during this lockdown because we know the university has the capacity to conduct assessments online; it has been doing it for many years.”

Unisa said it was always worried about the reputational risk of the exams, “however, the open-book examination format is a very common form of assessment and is widely used. This kind of examination is set in a different format to that of the venue-based variety, and requires marking and quality assurance of a different nature.

“Quality assurance includes the use of plagiarism tools and virtual proctoring. As is always the case, there will be zero tolerance for any form of irregularity identified in the marking process,” Unisa said.

The university added that a number of formats would be used, including timed, virtual-proctored and multiple-choice examinations.

“The open-book examination format is one of the options, but will not be used exclusively.”

Unisa said any student unable to sit for an exam this month and next month – for whatever reason – may defer their exams. A task team, Unisa said, had also been formed with significant input from the university’s information and communication technology (ICT) department to ensure that the online platforms used were sufficiently robust.

“Times scheduled for uploading and downloading examination papers have been considered in relation to the number of students who will be taking the examinations. The university has successfully run large-volume examinations of this nature before, and academic, examination and ICT staff will be monitoring the systems.

“Moreover, modules will be allocated to one of five sessions per day to manage online activity and distribute the load. The university is aware that it does not necessarily have control over all the parts of the system environment – for example, internet availability and speeds on the day, as well as electricity supply. And thus, as noted, students can elect to take the examinations in the October-November session should glitches occur.”

Unisa defended the decision, saying the online exams were in line with the Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown social distancing regulations

Unisa said many of its exam papers only required low-tech access to the internet, and students would be able to download questions and upload answers using their phones.

Those students who opted not to take their examinations during the May-June session would automatically be deferred to the October-November session. Unisa said that, initially, the intention was to defer the exams to later in the year, when, hopefully, the country would be on a lower lockdown level.

But this was rejected by the NSRC, which argued that the students should be allowed to decide when they wanted to sit for the exams.

Ngwenya confirmed that the student union had vehemently rejected this proposal from management.

He said they had many reasons for making the decision, including the fact that students who were completing their studies this semester should be given a chance to do so. They also didn’t want other students to lose a semester by not writing exams.

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