At a large institution like the University of Alberta, lab space is a commodity that’s always in high demand. From students working on school projects to professors booking final exams, lab space across the university fills up quickly each term, especially during midterm and final exam periods. Over the past few years, Information Services and Technology (IST) has seen an increase in the number of instructors wanting to provide digital assessments to their students. “There are a lot of efficiencies to be gained by running exams on computers,” says Dave Laurie, eClass Support Analyst with IST.
We know that there are a number of benefits to running digital exams: they are easy to maintain, questions can be pulled from deep banks to randomize student attempts and increase exam security, there is automated marking, automated distribution of those marks, and reports that provide analytics to instructors, and feedback to students. However, the barrier to running these exams has been computer lab capacity. To solve this problem, IST has been investigating how students could write digital eClass exams on their own devices in a manner that maintains both the integrity of the exam and the exam process.
Over the past year, the eClass team took on the challenge of solving this problem. Namely, to “create an application that integrates and uses eClass exams, that could be used in central labs or on student-owned laptops, that does not depend on a persistent wireless internet connection, that provides a method to maintain and report on exam integrity, that works on a variety of models of laptops, and that is sustainable both technologically and financially."
The resulting application is called ExamLock — a software that can be installed on a central lab computer or student-owned laptop. It provides the ability for an instructor to deliver a digital eClass exam on that computer or laptop and then receive reports on the integrity of that exam.
Unlike some commercial products, ExamLock does not try to completely lock down a computer. “Many commercial companies have tried to solve this problem,” says Asim Aziz, Senior Analyst with IST’s eClass team and one of the lead developers on the ExamLock initiative. “And the way they prevent students from cheating is to do a lockdown,” he says. “They’ll make a lot of changes to the computer." These changes can sometimes cause severe problems on the student’s personal computer. To overcome this problem, ExamLock has been designed to minimize changes by simply monitoring the exam session and reporting any actions outside the normal flow of the exam (e.g. switching screens) to a dashboard that the instructor has access to. It is then left to the instructor to decide on the severity of the reported event, and how to proceed.
During the Winter 2019 term, the eClass team ran ExamLock pilots with select departments and instructors to learn more about how the application would work, and the different considerations that needed to be further examined. Although the pilot has been a success thus far and received positive feedback, the team noted a few critical items that need to be taken into account when an instructor is delivering a digital assessment on a student-owned device. For example, what do you do if their computer battery dies?
With this knowledge, the eClass team put together two release strategies for ExamLock going forward. The first strategy was to release ExamLock into all of the University’s centrally booked labs. With this completed, instructors can now use ExamLock as a tool to deliver digital eClass exams in any of our central labs. The second is for eClass to directly work with individual instructors or departments that wish to provide digital exams using student-owned devices. This release strategy is slow and purposefully intended to provide instructors and departments with an understanding of the different considerations they need to take into account when delivering these types of digital exams. “Our approach is to take slow concentric circles, roll it out bigger and bigger, and build a product and service that anyone would want to use,” Aziz explains.
With the release of ExamLock, IST has begun to remove the barrier of physical lab capacity. As ExamLock continues to be tested and used more widely on student-owned devices, the hope is that lab space will no longer be an obstacle, and that students can write a digital exam in the comfort of their existing classroom, using their own device.
Currently, IST’s eClass team is running an open beta version of ExamLock. The team is focused on working out any existing bugs in the software and ensuring that the necessary processes and support are in place. By spring 2020, the eClass team plans to roll-out a wider release of the application. “We’re still in the early stages, but it’s growing,” says Laurie. “It's fun to be a part of something so impactful and see where it might go.”
Note: ExamLock was created for the context of delivering digital exams within University labs, classrooms and spaces. ExamLock is not a remote proctor and still requires good proctoring practices to be used during exams.