null The future of exams is being made today

The future of exams is being made today

Just imagine: first you must fill in a brown examination envelope, with no room for mistakes. You drop the envelope into a letterbox found in the furthest corner of the department's corridor. You then sit at an examination that takes place in the university's great hall on a certain day of the month, nervously wondering if the correct set of questions will be handed to you. That's the way it was, but fortunately many things have now changed.

Deliberations on the fate of the Tenttis system used by universities began in 2013. The alternatives were either developing the old system or building a new one, and the higher education institutions chose the latter. This is how the electronic examination system EXAM was born.

– It all started as a sort of research project that had strong links with electronic assessment. Today, EXAM is widely used at higher education institutions as an examination system and a tool for electronic assessment which supports the use of electronic exam rooms, explains Marjut Anderson, EXAM Project Manager at CSC.

The concept consists of the examination system, remotely supervised exam rooms and an administrative process: as a consequence, a more flexible process of sitting exams is now available for the higher education institutions, students and teachers alike. 

The electronic system streamlines and clarifies examination processes. EXAM is the only large-scale examination system in Finland that can be integrated in the institutions' basic systems. For example, it automatically exports the input information for a new examination from the data on the higher education institution's teaching offering and, if so desired, imports attainment data directly into the relevant register.

– Over 10 years ago, the electronic examination system was expected to bring higher education institutions savings amounting to about two euros per each student and exam, compared to a situation where the paper is first printed out, the student may not turn up, and working time is spent on organising re-sits. Then the paper makes its way to the teacher who assesses it, archives it and so on.

All this can be taken care of electronically, and at current cost levels and using the process benefits as an indicator, the savings per exam are believed to be considerably greater than what was initially estimated. 

The new normal?

For students, electronic exam rooms mean they can pick a time that suits them for sitting an exam, offering increased flexibility in the planning of studies. Higher education institutions can receive performances at a faster pace, as paper-based exams can be at least partly replaced by electronic ones. 

For the teacher, on the other hand, the concept offers a selection of electronic tools. The exam can be set up, opened, assessed and recorded in the study attainment register from the teacher's desktop.

– At Tampere University of Applied Sciences, we introduced electronic examinations using EXAM in spring 2016. This month, our students will be completing the 20,000th electronic exam in the system. The students have been extremely satisfied, especially with the flexibility offered by the system, and the teachers have praised EXAM's user friendliness and the ease of organising re-sits, reports Senior Planning Officer and Chair of the EXAM Consortium Sanna Sintonen from Tampere University of Applied Sciences.

The freedom of choosing when you want to sit an exam is a great plus compared to ordinary exams, and hopefully it will become the normal practice in the future", a student writes.

Electronic examinations also improve the efficiency of assessment, for example through automated grading of multiple choice exams, and the impacts of interpreting students' handwriting are eliminated.

A massive amount of joint expert work

The EXAM Consortium, which is comprised of 27 higher education institutions, is responsible for the maintenance and further development of the examination system and concept. CSC offers hosting services and supports the development work by offering the consortium tools and assistance with project management.

– Originally, 10 higher education institutions were committed to the EXAM building project, and the activities were led by universities. Universities of applied sciences discovered the service soon after the EXAM Consortium was established, says Totti Tuhkanen, Senior Planning Office at the University of Turku.

The consortium has since grown from the original small system project into an extensive higher education institution network.

– The joint project aspired to an examination solution that would have been beyond the reach of any institution by itself. This was an apt assessment of the situation: a massive amount of joint expert work has been committed to modelling and fine-tuning the processes and developing an intuitive user interface. The objectives of this cooperation, which was supported by CSC, included ensuring the system's secure architecture, operational stability and interoperability with study administration ecosystems and national data infrastructure, such as the VIRTA service. EXAM has thus been proven its value as an instrument for improving the effectiveness of teaching cooperation, Tuhkanen estimates.

The higher education institutions have access to the same functionalities, whether they are universities or universities of applied sciences. EXAM already responds to a large part of electronic assessment needs.

– Not all of them as yet, of course. What I find a particularly great achievement is that the large consortium has turned out a consistent and uniform product that can be used in the same format in all types of organisations, Consortium Chair Sintonen explains with satisfaction.

According to Project Manager Anderson, the objectives have in some sense also included harmonising the processes at universities of applied sciences and universities, and this has been highly successful. Looking at the bigger picture, this will facilitate certain types of joint educational activities, including common courses or sharing of resources. 

As a good example of this, Anderson cites an experiment of sharing examination facilities which started last year. This means that in the future, students could sit their exam in the facilities of another higher education institution. The concept is currently being piloted, and the developers hope that it will be ready for production use in the autumn.

Juggling diverse preferences and needs 

EXAM has today established its position as a tool for higher education institutions. According to Project Manager Anderson, the consortium is going strong and working well. While the work has sometimes been slow, the consortium model has been well received in the field. The consortium is examining assessment as a whole and the implementation of flexible studies on a wider scale in Finland. 

Anderson notes that operating as a large consortium inevitably also brings challenges, and the work involves juggling a variety of preferences and needs. How can practices, assessment tools, teaching and processes be developed simultaneously with system development? 

– You must keep working on every aspect all the time. It would make more sense if, for example in an examination for a programming course, you could demonstrate your skills by coding rather than writing on a piece of paper. In these circumstances electronic assessment comes to its own.

– An examination always is a talking point, of course, and sometimes it turns out that the entire exam is outdated. Continuous assessment, for example through course assignments, should be used. However, the examination as a form of assessment will not be going away for many years. When you wish to organise a performance that is supervised in a certain way, this concept allows you to do it flexibly, Anderson assures.

EXAM is maturing and growing

The work goes on. How can electronic assessment be incorporated in cross-institutional studies, how can examination facilities and common resources be shared better, and how can assessment be improved further? And what examination types or system expansions are yet to come? 

– EXAM promotes the study administration's enterprise architecture objectives through interface specifications produced for shared use in Finland. EXAM is being developed with an open mind, and such ideas as using artificial intelligence to support the assessment of answers in essay-form examinations is a development path that I am observing with curiosity and great expectations. EXAM developers would be capable of assuming even greater responsibility for planning and implementing electronic assessment and feedback services, Tuhkanen believes.

To say nothing about international prospects.

– EXAM is continuously becoming a more mature and better product for electronic assessment. It must be capable of doing its current job well – and in parallel with this objective, there are development paths that look further into the future. I hope EXAM will also be a product of international interest. EXAM is making the future of sitting examinations today, Consortium Chair Sintonen sums up.

Project Manager Anderson also highlights the international prospects of the concept. For example, how could students going on exchanges complete studies to Finland and vice versa? 

– To our knowledge, this concept of a supervised examination room is unique, and it is not internationally known. We are working on this great idea in Finland – now, what about its international future? Anderson asks.

Could you imagine?



How to join?

  • Familiarise yourself with the way the consortium works on the website
  • As a higher education institution, you can join other institutions and help develop the system by becoming part of the consortium. Any higher education institution is welcome to join
  • Other education sector actors interested in the concept should contact CSC
  • The development of electronic assessment and EXAM played a major role in the decision to fund the DigiCampus project coordinated by the University of Eastern Finland (EUR 3.6 million) as part of the Government's key project on developing higher education. The EXAM consortium is responsible for the sub-project that will implement a national service portfolio for electronic examinations in 2018–2020

Further information:

DigiCampus project, text in Finnish



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Maria Virkkula