Universities concentrating on digital testing formats

University heads in Germany are reckoning with face-to-face exams being an exception for the time being, given a continuing high level of new COVID-19 infections throughout the country. Various remote testing methods have been implemented.

“Regarding the examination system, many universities are now developing and successfully applying flexible solutions and various concepts for new, digital exam formats,” says Peter-André Alt, president of the Hochschulrektorenkonferenz (HRK), the organisation of higher education institution heads.

While the coronavirus regulations of the federal states still allow conventional face-to-face student achievement assessments in principle, the prevailing high level of COVID-19 infections makes them the exception. According to Alt, they only tend to be carried out in person if tests cannot be postponed or other formats are ruled out, such as digitally supported remote testing.

Alt maintains that longer lasting contact restrictions are increasingly challenging universities to assist students in their individual studying activities. And he emphasises that communication in person is a crucial element of academic life for which virtual concepts can hardly provide a full substitute.

When it comes to academic achievement, digital concepts have to take into account additional legal aspects such as equal opportunities and data protection, according to Jannica Budde, project manager at the Hochschulforum Digitalisierung (HFD), a think-tank run jointly by the Stifterverband (Germany’s donors’ association for the promotion of science and the humanities), the HRK and the Centre for Higher Education.

Furthermore, Budde notes, testing scenarios vary depending on the number of students involved and the type of achievement being assessed, for example, reproducing knowledge as opposed to transferring it to another context.

For closed-book exams during which students may not consult material, remote monitoring, or online proctoring, can be applied.

However, Budde points out that online proctoring is highly controversial in terms of infringing on privacy, and refers to a pilot project at the University of Bayreuth’s law and economics department giving students the choice of online proctoring with cameras and microphones or taking in-class exams.

Open-book exams give students the opportunity to take a look at relevant material, such as case studies in law programmes, during testing.

At the University of Paderborn, Moodle tests were written via the institution’s own Moodle platform, and without digital proctoring. Time restrictions and carefully conceived testing concepts were applied to reduce cheating to a minimum. Take-home exams gave students the opportunity to download contexts they were to work on within a fixed period. The results were then sent off together with a declaration of academic honesty.

Budde notes that institutions have made an effort to provide legally sound testing formats as quickly as possible. However, she stresses that transferring analogue testing formats to digital formats has its clear limitations, especially regarding the supervising of tests.

She recommends that strategic decisions concerning online tests and standards be taken on the basis of dialogue with students and teachers. Other key prerequisites she mentions include providing appropriate legal frameworks as well as the necessary technical resources and support structures for students, such as mock written tests and an emergency hotline for students with technical problems.

The HFD was conceived to support universities in strategically anchoring and applying digitisation in teaching and works with institutions to develop corresponding forward-looking scenarios.

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