These are strange times. Indeed, a colleague at Palatinate recently remarked that they had read the word ‘unprecedented’ more times in the last week than they had in their entire life up until then. Our world has turned upside down; in no other circumstance would we have willingly complied with a government policy that only allows us to leave the house once a day.
From a Durham perspective, many of the University’s announcements over the past weeks have themselves been without precedent. Perhaps the most striking of all was the decision to reconfigure all summer exams as “online assessments”.
This announcement has caused much anxiety, and rightly so. The decision raised concerns surrounding the likelihood of cheating, and the incompatibility of practical exams with the revised format. Most seriously, the University’s decision seemed to make little provision for students whose home environments will make the sitting of exams difficult or impossible.
All these concerns are entirely legitimate.
However, summer exams must go ahead. Not only does the integrity of our Durham degrees depend on it, but any other solution risks opening more cans of worms than it closes.
In particular, wholesale cancellations of exams, or the blanket awardance of a 2:1 to every student not only renders three or four years of study meaningless, but risks the future prospects of individuals who need a specific classification for their masters or graduate employment.
Proposals for a ‘safety net’ undoubtedly have their merits. Those who consider the online exam system to place them at a disadvantage will be able to rely on their previous marks to support them. However, this system risks defeating the object of these exams altogether – a third-year student who earned a first in their second year could graduate with a first-class degree, regardless of how they perform in the upcoming exams.
A more nuanced safety net proposal, with margins of error and means testing via SAC forms, may well represent a viable solution, eliminating the particular disadvantages experienced by a minority of students. The current arrangement of online 48-hour exams, in combination with a coherent safety-net policy, could represent the most satisfactory solution to an imperfect situation.
The reality is that, for the majority, these online assessments continue to represent a level playing field. Circumstances have no doubt changed, but most students are lucky enough to have suitable home environments, as well as access to the requisite electronic equipment, to complete these exams. A clamour to cancel exams, or to render them redundant, not only demeans us, but risks drowning out the very real and important concerns of students who are not so lucky.
As a student body, we absolutely must pressurise the University for more details and further clarification. We need to establish their plans to counteract cheating, and how the rules of closed-book or unseen exams will be adjusted. We must know how exams incompatible with an online format will be undertaken. We need to keep asking those departments who are yet to provide enough detail for specifics about how they intend to handle the new exam system. Most urgently, specific and detailed reassurances need to be made to students whom the new format particularly disadvantages as to how these disadvantages will be mitigated.
However, it is our belief that the University will act upon our concerns this time, because they have no other choice. Already, History and English Literature final-year dissertations were granted a last-minute extension. Just yesterday, the Modern Languages and Cultures department responded to an open letter from its students, and dramatically altered the nature of oral examinations to better accommodate students who risked being disadvantaged.
These concessions prove that, by student-staff collaboration, online assessments can be configured in a way that disadvantages nobody.
We must raise our concerns, and we must do it now. But exams must go ahead.
Image: Maddie Flisher