The UK government’s announcement that all universities in England can resume in-person teaching from today will give a welcome boost not only to students but also to exam invigilators like me.
Online exams were the only sensible option during the height of the pandemic – although it took some university departments quite a while to realise it. When Covid-19 first began to appear in the UK last spring, many departments continued to insist on in-person exams. Some didn’t even make mask-wearing compulsory for students. When I took that up with one department, I was told to mind my own business. So I refused to invigilate for them – or for anyone else unless I felt that it was 100 per cent safe for both the invigilators and the students.
Eventually, though, the penny dropped and pretty much all exams moved online. And it is not only the tech companies that may be inclined to keep them there. I daresay that having students do their exams in their own bedrooms is more cost-effective for universities – particularly those that have to hire space commercially to accommodate all their exams. And students themselves may prefer to endure their most stressful university moments in the comfort of their own homes.
But my experience of invigilating online exams – after years of overseeing in-person undergraduate, postgraduate and professional level exams – suggests that running them this summer would be a grave mistake.
There are many reasons for this. First of all, the playing field is very unequal. Students have very different home environments and some are much more conducive to sitting exams than others. Varying amounts of space, quiet and internet bandwidth mean that some students will inevitably lose out through no fault of their own. At least in physical exams everyone sits at the same desks in the same hall and is subject to the same cues for concentration. Moreover, a smile or a kind word from a peer – or even an invigilator – can go a long way to easing nerves.
Universities conducting online exams are also opening themselves up to many more complaints. Students are pretty savvy about their rights and are not shy about asserting them. One student asked me at the beginning of their online exam if they could complain if there was a problem with the wifi. Another asked if he should put in for mitigating circumstances after his screen froze for 10 seconds.
The online exams I invigilated were well managed within the context of having to “wing it”. However, universities forgot that some policing of the invigilators, as well as the students, is necessary.
Not all invigilators are as reliable and sensible as universities might like. First, there are the overzealous ones eager to please and be promoted. They are like cats, waiting to pounce on anything that smells even slightly fishy: any inconsistent twitch or stare, or any longer-than-average toilet break. These figures are a particular menace in the online context, where no one is quite sure what to look for and where there are few other opportunities to make a good impression on those who hire invigilators.
Then there is the opposite problem: the negligent invigilators. In exam halls, we are all watching each other, so it is much harder for colleagues to text their friends, surf the internet or even fall asleep than it is in the online context (although it does still happen).
But even the most experienced and reasonable invigilators find it hard to do a good job online. Reports suggest that cheating has gone through the roof since exams moved online. But it is hard to be sure precisely because online cheating is so hard to detect. A student would really have to be quite naïve to be caught with notes in the view of the camera – even with a pre-exam visual sweep of their room.
Of course, an invigilator showing up on a student’s screen and eyeballing them like Big Brother is potentially more likely to put them off cheating than one scanning a whole exam hall, rarely making eye contact with individuals. But maybe not if cheating is just so much easier to do. Moreover, there is something inherently creepy about such levels of intimacy with students. It feels like an invasion of their privacy – especially given that everything is being recorded.
Of course, many universities are turning to cheat-detecting algorithms instead. But even though these systems never fall asleep, I am not convinced that they are likely to be any more successful at catching cheats. After all, they too can do no more than monitor eye movements and count the seconds during toilet breaks.
At least in physical exams you can escort students to the toilets, which allows you to hear when things are not quite right – such as when a student I was escorting pulled many paper towels from the dispenser despite me not having heard the tap run. We checked the bin after he left and found that he had hidden his cheat notes under the towels.
You wouldn’t even need to attempt such subterfuge if you were in your own toilet at home, out of reach of your webcam.
Students have consistently said throughout the pandemic that they are anxious to get back to the full university experience as soon as possible. Now that we are at the point of opening up again in England, let’s make sure that experience includes the traditional lonely walk to your allotted exam desk and the quick look around at your hundreds of similarly nervous peers, before the invigilator utters those fateful words: “You may turn over your paper”.
Author Bio: Helen Soteriou is a freelance writer and an invigilator at several UK universities.