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1:57pm on Sunday, 10th May, 2020:



Two of my modules have examinations tomorrow.

This year, things are different.

I have to be contactable for the whole period of the exam, plus half an hour before and an hour afterwards. As the exam is three hours long (instead of the usual two), this means I have to be around for four and a half hours. Fortunately, I wasn't planning on going anywhere, but still...

The exams have been modified so that easy-to-look-up bookwork answers have been replaced. Some students are already complaining that this means they won't be asked bookwork questions (which isn't quite true, as bookwork can be asked other ways). Nevertheless, I expect collaboration will be rife.

I also expect that people will experience sudden problems with the Internet. In MUD, people only ever lost connectivity to the game the moment before they were about to die in a fight. I expect a similar pattern of bbehaviour here, for metaphorically similar reasons: candidates whose Internet connections have hitherto been robust will find them subject to inexplicable outages that mean they were unable to upload their exam answers in time (that is, within this extra hour they were given precisely so they had time to find another means of connecting).

While I'm around for the four and a half hours, I'm supposed to be monitoring a forum that candidates can use to raise issues about the paper. Before the sickness came, these would be fielded by an invigilator and I'd only be contacted if the problem looked genuine (rather than, say, a misreading or misunderstanding on the candidate's part). Tomorrow, though, there will be no dragon on guard to filter out the misconceptions. Instead, students have a direct line to the person who set the exam question, me, which for some will be too much of an opportunity to miss. I am therefore preparing myself to be told "we haven't been taught this" or asked "how are we supposed to answer this?" or "what does this question mean?".

If such forum postings do materialise, I'm fairly confident regarding who'll will be making them, too. Every year, I get a small number of students who are needy: they ask a slew of questions about the assignment, then after I've marked them indignantly ask me to go through explaining why they didn't get the result that they were hoping for. These are likely to be the candidates who want their hands held through the exam, or want to place a marker to show that they're not happy so they can complain about it later and ask for a remark.

This is only half the story, though.

The exams are being made available on one platform, Moodle, but have to be submitted on another platform, Faser (which is an Essex-specific piece of software — it's actually pretty good compared to Moodle). Students have been told to upload their answers to Faser as often as they like, so they're protected if their Internet connection goes down or their PC crashes or their cat walks across the keyboard and touches the ctrl-alt-delete keys all at the same time. This is fine, because when I pick up the scripts I can ask Faser to give me only the latest files.

Hmm, well it would be fine if each candidate only uploaded one file with occasional incremental changes. In fact, they've been told that they can upload files for separate questions, or with more than one question in them, or photos of hand-written or hand-drawn diagrams they've taken with their phone. In other words, if I ask for the latest submission then I may only get the answer to one question. If I download all valid submissions, I could be looking at a dozen or more files for some students, with no indication of which is the one I should mark (the timestamps are all removed in the collation and compression process).

Even if I do know what versions of answers I'm supposed to be marking, I don't know how to mark them. Obviously I know how to award marks, but the physical process of marking them is going to be trouble. There's been no guidance on what to do here. Normally, I have a stack of paper exam scripts and I go through them a question at a time, for consistency. I mark all candidates' answers to question 1 first, then all candidates' answers to question 2, and so on. This time, this approach may not be possible; I could have to mark on a paper-by-paper basis. Also, because I don't have paper copies of the scripts, what am I to put marks on? I can insert red numbers into Word documents, but not into .pdf files or photos of decision trees. Am I supposed to print off all the papers using my printer? I don't think it's got enough ink for that. If there's an official spreadsheet in which to record the marks, it hasn't yet been released.

Needless to say, we haven't been given any extra time to mark these papers. I therefore know what I'll be doing all next week and next weekend.

Oh, and Faser allows late uploads for students who have extenuating circumstances. A week after the deadline, I have to download all the late submissions and mark them in case the extenuating circumstance applications are accepted. There could be a lot of these, given than some candidates will be doing the exam from far-flung corners of the world, like China or Cornwall, where the connection to the Faser servers may genuinely not be reliable. I could therefore find myself having to mark papers I already marked the bulk of once, while at the same time having to mark new ones for the third exam I have (that's being sat a week on Monday).

This is all to the benefit of the students, so I'm not complaining about the basic approach. It would just be nice if Faser would download the latest version of every file in a submission and if the people who are going to tell me I've marked the papers using the wrong process were to tell me what the right process is beforehand.

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