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Go Back to the List April 16, 2020
University examinations – A question of means

While some African universities are forging ahead with end-of-semester exams using alternative online methods, others are still considering their options. At the root of the issue are resources and preparedness.

According to Professor Ruthie Rono, deputy vice-chancellor for academic and student affairs at United States International University-Africa (USIU-Africa) based in Kenya, the university is going ahead with end-of-semester examinations in April.

Unlike many other institutions in Africa, USIU-Africa has the infrastructure to support online learning and assessment and over 90% of its students have devices and network access for online learning.

“At USIU-Africa, the university senate approved the use of open book examinations, projects, online proctored timed examinations, term papers, case studies and recorded videos for tasks that require observation for the end of spring semester examinations which began on 6 April 2020,” Rono said.

“Students are taking their examinations and other assessments online using Respondus Lockdown Browser Application and through Blackboard.”

Assessing capacity

Other universities in Africa are considering whether or not to delay the examinations, while still others are assessing their capacity and that of their staff and students to actually conduct online exams.

Yamina El Kirat El Allame, an international adviser and consultant in the field of higher education and the vice-dean for research and cooperation in the faculty of letters and human sciences at Mohammed V University of Rabat, Morocco, told University World News that traditional in-person exams “were still possible”, but did not need to happen immediately.

El Allame said it was important to be sensitive to the situation which was “very difficult”.

“People are dying or losing members of their families, people dear to them and what matters is people’s health; all the rest can wait," she said.

She said students are in a “bad psychological state” and were not in a mood to concentrate on studies, especially when they were from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Making up time

“From my perspective as an educator and teacher, I think that we can find the time later to think of real assessments and make up for what has been missed,” El Allame said.

”If we really care about quality, we should think of sacrificing the vacation time to make up for all that has been lost during this confinement period … I think that we should focus more on how much the students are acquiring and learning rather than on how to test them. We should first make sure they are learning things we can test them in.”

She said at this stage it was important to guarantee a quality of distance learning and to make sure that every single student has access to it and no-one is excluded due to a lack of means, either technological or financial.

‘Do we have the means?’

She said online assessment is possible, but “requires the means”.

“Do we have the means? I don’t think so. Our students, I mean the public system students, do not have the means or the environment to take these exams.”

She said while “open book exams” were an important assessment tool even during normal teaching circumstances, particularly with masters and even bachelor degree levels, some preparation of students was necessary.

Dr Violet Makuku, quality assurance specialist and project officer for the Harmonisation of African Higher Education Quality Assurance and Accreditation (HAQAA) Initiative at the Association of African Universities, told University World News the issue of examinations was complicated.

“It is not a matter of anyone agreeing or not agreeing to hold examinations, because the situation on the ground is dictating to the whole world about what is feasible and what is not feasible at the moment.

“In the first place, ‘Are all the students prepared for the examinations?’ The answer is a big ‘No’ because nobody planned for the lockdowns.”

She said those institutions or parts of institutions which had already established open, distance and e-learning (ODeL) infrastructure had a competitive advantage.

Quality assurance

“So even the background to the preparation for the examinations, before talking about the examinations themselves, is highly compromised when the quality dimension is considered, including the design and creation of materials for uploading.

“All these need to be quality assured and this becomes a major worry for every quality assurance expert,” Makuku said.

While universities were autonomous entities and had “some room to decide” the best route to take, Makuku said they should also consider vulnerable student groups, which include disabled students as well as economically disadvantaged students.

Makuku suggested that continuous assessment could replace examinations, but only if lecturers were in a position to reach everyone. And practical disciplines like medicine presented a challenge to this approach.

“What should be realised at this point in time is that whatever form of examination will be given by institutions, it will not be taken by every student.”

Makuku said given what she had heard on university radio channels, a sizeable number of students are considering deferring their studies as their only option.

‘A long way off’ online exams

Ahmed Atia, head of department of advisory and research at the faculty of medical technology of the University of Tripoli in Libya, told University World News that, from his point of view, developing countries, including Libya, were a long way off being able to conduct online examinations owing to lack of experience, expertise and equipment on the part of students and staff.

Atia said many families were not even living at home because of the recent uprisings.

Echoing this view, Juma Shabani, director of the Doctoral School at the University of Burundi, said many African universities were not prepared to conduct online exams mainly due to lack of capacity among academic staff and students in the use of ICT.

“As a result, several universities that have been closed down as a result of containment measures have simply stopped all academic activities. This situation calls on African universities to put in place adequate policies that will help to promote online distance education,” he said.

Makuku said the secretary general of the Association of African Universities, Professor Etienne Ehile, was focusing his attention on mobilising research and education entities, including universities and governments through their ministers, to come together to activate and revive their national research and education networks (NRENs).


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Written by Wagdy Sawahel,
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