Dissertation abstract

This page is home to the final abstract for my dissertation (MSc in Digital Education from the University of Edinburgh)

Migration or Transformation? Perspectives on Online Exams and Educational Practice

Summative assessment in higher education is coming under increasing pressure. Traditional exams are criticised in some quarters for lacking validity and relevance to the needs of contemporary students, while financial constraints have led many institutions to seek improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of a variety of activities, including assessment. Some in higher education suggest that online exams – which might take a variety of forms, ranging from traditionally invigilated computer-based tests to new types of collaborative exams – can help to address many of these problems.

To date, the use of online exams in higher education has been characterised by two main approaches: migration (transposing traditional exams to digital environments in order to achieve organisational gains, such as improved efficiency) and transformation (using digital technologies as a catalyst to redefine summative assessment, with the overarching aim of realigning education with the perceived needs of contemporary society). By investigating the experiences of higher education staff, my research seeks to increase understanding about the implications of online exams for educational practice in particular contexts. Areas of investigation include the extent to which the framing of online exams in migration or transformation terms is helpful, the contexts in which an online exam might be desirable or feasible, and the discursive implications of the term ‘online exam’ itself for current and future practice.

Data were collected via in-depth, semi-structured interviews with eight individuals who are involved in designing, developing and/or delivering online exams in higher education across four countries. Through analysis of this qualitative data, I sought to generate grounded theory about the implications of online exams for educational practice within particular contexts.

The findings of my research raise concerns about migrating traditional exams online, and encourage institutions to consider carefully the complex, entangled relationships between the sociomaterial realities of online exam environments and educational practice. Moreover, I highlight some possible shortcomings of the idea that migration can be used as a stepping stone towards other developments in the near future. Turning towards the transformation approach, I problematise the idea that online exams are a logical response to a changing society, warn of the dangers of accepting apparently essentialist assumptions about technology, and suggest that a more detailed understanding of the ways in which online exams might be qualitatively different to traditional exams is required in order to support institutions’ decision-making processes. Lastly, I argue that universities should consider carefully the contexts within which an online exam might be feasible or desirable, and argue that the term ‘online exam’ is itself underpinned by a particular set of assumptions about technology, education and assessment that limit the parameters for developing practice.

I conclude by posing a series of questions that might help to guide future practice with online exams, and by suggesting possible avenues for further research.