Behind the scenes at one of SA's largest online exams

On 12 June 2020, Unisa reached yet another milestone in meeting the challenge of Covid-19 when close on 27 000 students in the College of Law (CLAW), the largest law faculty in Africa, successfully sat for an online examination. This is undoubtedly one of the largest single sessions ever in South Africa and, indeed, on the continent. The preparation and support that went into this exercise, and the dedication of the support team behind the scenes, are remarkable.

On Friday evening, students logged on to the university’s online examination system from their private spaces all over South Africa, many of them on devices issued by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and with data provided by Unisa, to sit for the Introduction to Law paper. On hand to provide real-time support was the lecturer responsible for the paper, Annalize Jacobs, assisted by a task-team comprising fellow-lecturers at CLAW, administrators and IT specialists, who exchanged vital information with each other via a Microsoft Teams session.

The university’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor (VC), Prof Mandla Makhanya, closely observed the support session, as did Prof Veronica McKay, Unisa’s Acting Vice-Principal for Teaching, Learning, Community Engagement and Student Support, Prof Vinesh Basdeo, Executive Dean of CLAW, and Prof Olaotse John Kole, Deputy Dean of CLAW.

McKay, who has been spearheading Unisa’s online examinations programme, says that the college has perfected the live monitoring of online examinations. "Friday night’s session was completed within time and without major issues, and this is testimony to the hard, dedicated work put in by CLAW to deal with the unusual situation in which the Covid-19 pandemic has placed universities around the world. The session was unique in that we had 27 000 students writing the same examination paper online at the same time – a technical feat of note. Following the to-be-expected teething problems experienced in other examination sessions earlier in the month, we expanded the system, put in much more bandwidth and created a dedicated portal for each examination."

CLAW’s Basdeo says that he and Kole agreed that there was a pressing need to change the manner in which students were supported during the Covid-19 pandemic. "We requested chairs of department and portfolio managers to come up with a plan in this regard, and they did so within a very short period of time yet with great forethought. The resulting plan was supported and approved by Prof McKay."

Adds Kole: "The first step in executing our plan was taken by Advocate KB Morota, Head of Unisa’s Law Clinic, who proceeded to conduct live lectures for many modules through Facebook. This proved to be most successful and saw more than 13 000 students attending a single session on one occasion. Needless to say, students were very excited about this and it went a long way towards bolstering their morale during an uncertain time in the higher education sector. The second step was when we requested CLAW’s Tuition Manager, Mpho Matlala, to also ensure real-time support for students during the actual writing of online examinations. The result was the Microsoft Teams live support streams solution that worked so effectively on Friday night."

Commenting on the nuts and bolts of the support system, Matlala says that students are able to call and e-mail the lecturer responsible for the paper while writing. "Members of the support team listen in on the conversation and read the e-mails in real-time, assisting us to, collectively, provide the best possible advice when issues are encountered," he says. "Devising the system has been challenging, but the exercise has invigorated CLAW staff to unrivalled levels of passion and commitment."

Having experienced the support session first-hand, the university’s VC is unstinting in his praise of CLAW’s staff and that of the university at large. "Covid-19 has demonstrated the urgency of moving online with excellence, and going forward this will be the focus of our efforts," says Makhanya. "I have been truly humbled and gratified by the response of our staff to the demands that have been placed on them to ensure that, insofar as is possible, our students’ studies suffer the minimal disruption and our university’s operations and academic project continue to function efficiently and effectively. As was evident on Friday evening, Unisa has displayed an indomitable spirit, and staff have put their hands up and demonstrated their loyalty to this university and our most valued customers, our students."

* By Philip van der Merwe, Editor, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2020/06/15