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Prepared for All Eventualities

The Center for Digital Systems at Freie Universität developed a solution for students to take exams at home during the corona pandemic.

Jul 24, 2020

“E-Examinations@Home” plans to facilitate between 7,000 and 10,000 online exams taken at home by the end of August. The image above shows an example.

“E-Examinations@Home” plans to facilitate between 7,000 and 10,000 online exams taken at home by the end of August. The image above shows an example.
Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher

The summer semester of 2020 wasn’t exactly business as usual. Within just a short time span, staff and students of Freie Universität Berlin had to adapt to teaching and studying almost entirely online. While this unique semester may now be coming to an end, examinations are still on the horizon. Proving their ability to find creative solutions for the current situation is undiminished, the team from the Center for Digital Systems (CeDiS) has come up with a new concept to help students take their exams digitally from home. The innovative system, “E-Examinations@Home,” should facilitate between 7,000 and 10,000 online exams taken at home by the end of August.

Two trial runs have already taken place with hundreds of students – some from outside Germany – signing up to take part. “There wasn’t a single technical hitch,” says Alexander Schulz, the CeDiS team member responsible for coordinating the new remote exams. “This is definitely a system with long-term viability.”

The “E-Examinations@Home” system works by transferring the exam papers electronically to the CeDiS servers and into a special software, LPLUS Teststudio 3. Students then access the exam via the internet, after installing the “Safe Exam” browser, a new software developed by ETH Zurich. To make sure that examination conditions are as fair as possible, the program puts the student’s computer into “kiosk mode,” which prevents the user from moving between different programs during the exam and hence from downloading prohibited study aids or internet materials.

Alexander Schulz (at left), Coordinator, E-Learning & E-Examinations at CeDiS, and Dr. Albert Geukes, Head of CeDiS.

Alexander Schulz (at left), Coordinator, E-Learning & E-Examinations at CeDiS, and Dr. Albert Geukes, Head of CeDiS.
Image Credit: Karoline von Köckritz

Although the system has been tested as thoroughly as possible, problems cannot be entirely ruled out. “The system will be expected to cope with thousands of exams, so even with all the care in the world we can’t exclude the possibility that occasional errors may creep in,” says Schulz.

Just in case things do go wrong, the examination software has a built-in live chat function, and – for more complex problems – a telephone hotline operated by the CeDiS team. “In a worst-case scenario, where the software crashes and can’t be rebooted, for example, the examination will be deemed not to have taken place. Students won’t be penalized if their computer crashes or the internet connection is lost,” explains Schulz.

Years of Experience

Although this summer semester has been unique, digital examinations have been taking place at Freie Universität Berlin for some years now. CeDiS ran its first test on computer-supported formats back in 2004 and went on to develop the E-Examination Center during the following years. During “normal” semesters, up to 190 students can take part in online exams at the same time. The university is currently working on hygiene regulations that will allow students to take part in examinations on site even under pandemic conditions.

Past experience played an important role in developing a remote exam format, says Albert Geukes, head of CeDiS: “In just under five weeks, ‘E-Examinations@Home’ has blossomed into a fully-functioning system capable of meeting all the relevant technical, organizational, and legal criteria.”

Further, he explains, the central university administration was involved at a number of levels, including the staff councils, the IT security officer, the personnel department, and the office of the general counsel. This was important to ensure that the system is legally watertight. “We sat down – virtually, of course – with experts in examination law and data protection and asked them to give us their opinion. They confirmed that our concept is legally sound,” says Schulz.

Legally Binding Declarations, Rather Than Proctoring

In contrast to some other universities, Freie Universität’s “E-Examinations@Home” system doesn’t make use of “proctoring,” meaning checking up on students via webcam. Alexander Schulz explains that the use of webcams is still a gray area under data protection law. Instead, students at Freie Universität Berlin must submit a legally binding declaration that they have not cheated during the examination.

If any concerns about a candidate’s honesty should arise, the exam software makes it possible to check the time at which the student answered specific questions. This might show, for example, that the student was working in a group rather than alone. “But generally speaking, we assume that candidates are honest,” says Schulz. “We work on the principle of innocent until proven guilty.”

In the case of “closed” question formats, such as multiple choice questions, the exams can be graded automatically, but when it comes to open formats teachers have to evaluate students’ responses themselves. But Alexander Schulz believes that even this is often more efficient where exams are digitalized. “The fact that the students’ answers are typed rather than handwritten means that it’s much easier for teachers to read them, which cuts the time needed for grading by at least 30%, sometimes even more,” he says.

Online or On-Site? It’s Up to You

Students still have the choice of whether to take part in online exams. If they prefer, they can decide to wait until on-site examinations are possible again. On the other hand, the pandemic should not cause delays for students who wish to finish their degree programs. “Even in these difficult times, students should be able to keep working toward their degree,” Schulz points out.

Another factor to consider is that while most exams will take place remotely this semester – either as “E-Examinations@Home” or in the case of oral exams, by video link – there are some subjects where remote exams are not possible and university regulations demand that students appear in person. These are mainly subjects where the degree is also a professional qualification – such as law, pharmacy, and veterinary medicine – but this also applies to practical examinations in the natural sciences, for example.

Prepared for All Eventualities

The key outcome is to ensure that the university is prepared for all eventualities. “With E-Examinations@Home, we wanted to make sure the university has a system in place ready to go whenever it’s needed, whether or not another lockdown happens,” says Alexander Schulz.

CeDiS believes that online remote examinations are probably here to stay. Albert Geukes explains: “Of course we hope that things will get better and this pandemic situation will come to an end soon. But we want to be prepared – just in case.”

The original German version of this article was published on July 10, 2020, in campus.leben, the online magazine of Freie Universität Berlin.