Posted: Monday 9th December 2019
There are mixed opinions on Bring Your Own Device digital exams; they are readily scalable and excellent for fostering user confidence and computer literacy but some have raised concerns about the variance in machines leading to more technical problems (the most ardent naysayers say this is more like Bring Your Own Disaster!). Having run our digital exams in this way for the last four academic years with great success, we're firm believers in the efficacy of BYOD but on average about 20% of students are unable to bring their own laptop for a number of reasons and technical issues can indeed arise on the day, so it's important to have alternative arrangements in place to support them. Today we'll be opening up our book of memories, doing some reminiscing on what our backup plans used to be and how far we've come since then.
In the earliest stages of the project where we rolled out digital exams within a single department, our contingency was approximately 30 - 40 University laptops and some PC labs to be used as alternative exam venues. Five of these laptops were kept absolutely off limits from booking in case any student's own machine failed during their exam and needed to be swapped out.
Students were required to notify the University beforehand if they knew they would be unable to bring their own device, and they did so through the highly sophisticated system of emailing our Digital Examinations Project Officer directly. Devices would then be allocated on a spreadsheet and students would receive a reply letting them know what they'd been given (they didn't get to express a preference for a laptop or a seat in the PC lab). The devices would then be available for them on site, with no need to collect anything beforehand. This was managed pretty well but after tallying up the numbers we found that nearly 100 students had made use of this for the May 2017 exams and it became apparent that it wasn’t going to be a particularly sustainable way of doing things as the project scaled up.
In preparation for the winter exams, we worked closely with the Examinations team to develop a Device Declaration Form which students would fill out online rather than emailing a single individual (though in reality it was only in the following academic year that the Digital Examinations Project Officer finally stopped having to redirect emailed requests for a loan device!). The first version of this form was extremely simple, only requiring a student to tick a box to indicate that they did not have their own device to bring. On the back end, information such as their student ID number would be automatically populated. This went through a few more iterations, eventually prompting students to specify the modules/ examinations that a loan device would be required for in order to reduce the workload for staff making allocations.
Even though this was a definite improvement, the Examinations team still needed to export the data from the form and liaise with the invigilators to provide a list of the students who had used the form to book a loan device. On the day of the exam, the invigilators could then verify the student on the list and direct them to their allocated device, whether that was a laptop in the main venue or a PC in one of the alternative rooms.
2018/9 - present day
By May 2019 the digital examinations were the biggest they had ever been and we were keen to move away from using PC labs as alternative venues because this was stretching our invigilation/ technical support resource. To this end, the University invested in 200 new laptops to be used primarily during the examinations period - though these are also bookable for more general usage throughout the rest of the year. We also made plans for the entire booking process to be much more student driven and developed a new booking system where students simply need to specify the date and time of their exam and then reserve an available device. During exam periods the laptop provision is divided into two 100-strong batches - one for the morning period and one for the afternoon - and these are kept on rotation to ensure that nobody ends up booking a device with a low battery.
Instead of setting these devices up in the exam hall for them, it’s now the students' responsibility to make sure that they go to a designated room in the library and collect their booked laptop before the start of their exam. There are also terms and conditions in place which require them to return the laptops after the exam (within 5 hours of collection). We still like to keep some emergency laptops on site in a charging cabinet case of BYOD failure too. This has been a highly effective system and will probably be the contingency setup that we'll continue to use for the foreseeable future.
Speaking of the future, with WISEflow now implemented in all three Colleges at Brunel we're also at a stage where we can be more forward thinking and spread a universal message about BYOD to prospective students too - which will in help anticipate the need for contingency measures. We'll save the detail on that for another post though, and hope that the fond memories here have provided some deeper insight into how our process has evolved.