From Desk to Desktop: Making Online Exams Work

Laura Orozco
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Sheffield, England

The University of Sheffield, in the County of South Yorkshire, England, is now delivering 5% of its formal examinations online through the Blackboard Learn platform. This developing initiative is slowly transforming the learning environment and continues to engage more people, both academics and students, to the importance of virtual practices in the campus.

Danny Monaghan, Senior Learning Technologist at the institution, described the journey that the University has gone through, and explained the benefits of the online examination process. He has been involved in the development of materials and technologies across a wide range of subject areas in teaching and learning, including the creation of content for the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

Early 2000s

Since the early beginnings of the new millennium, the University of Sheffield started thinking about new technological initiatives to improve the teaching and learning practices. One of its first steps was to create a Virtual Learning Environment that was able to frame the different strategies.

Year 2005

The university created an online teaching and learning space called MOLE (My Online Learning Environment). This system ran the first online exams through a WebCT (Web Course Tools) with limited or no local support. According to Monaghan, “Academics were delivering exams in the VLE and exploring the opportunities it offered, but they were doing it in a very unstructured and unsupported way. This was mainly happening in the Faculty of Engineering and after a few years of this activity they asked for support.

Buildings of The University of Sheffield, located in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England. Photo by: AFP Oli Scarff.
Buildings of The University of Sheffield, located in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England. Photo by: AFP Oli Scarff.

Year 2012

After reviewing the requirements for the institutional VLE, the institution decided to switch their MOLE system to a more modern, fully featured platform: Blackboard Learn. This allowed them to provide a secure virtual space for students and give them flexible access to their courses from anywhere in the world. This switch also gave the University of Sheffield the platform to plan an online exams pilot running with the Faculty of Engineering, and this marked the beginning. It became clear, very quickly, that a framework was required to deliver the support required.

During the ‘2012-2013’ academic year, before the Blackboard Learn system was tested for online examination, there were 17 exams ran on the VLE with the participation of 1,820 students.

‘2013-2014’ academic year

The pilot started running in October 2013, and the first online exams were delivered in January 2014. “For this purpose, the Examinations team and the Technology Enhanced Learning team worked together to design a process that would allow us to deliver exams on the VLE with the same basics guidelines and regulations of the normal paper-based exams,” says Monaghan.

During this period, there were 40 online exams delivered with the participation of 2,770 students.

‘2014-2015’ academic year

The pilot was successful and enabled the teams in charge to create a formal procedure to set the guidelines for the whole University. “We went from piloting it to a full implementation at an institutional level. Since then, every single time, we review what happen at the exam period. We find out what worked well and we decide what changes we will need to make things more robust.”

During this period, the team did 43 exams. The results were very similar to those of the previous year.

Danny Monaghan, Senior Learning Technologist at the University of Sheffield. Photos by: AFP Oli Scarff.
Danny Monaghan, Senior Learning Technologist at the University of Sheffield. Photos by: AFP Oli Scarff.

Year 2016

Last year, the University delivered about 5% of the exams in Blackboard Learn, still a small percentage, but at the same time a significant growth considering the challenges that come with the change. During 2016, there were 76 online exams delivered, with the participation of 4,250 students.

“There are many benefits of online examinations. From the students’ perspective, it allows them to have a more varied experience. For example, we now have exams that use audio and video resources. From an academics’ point of view, it allows them to easily give feedback and grades. We have also had feedback from exam markers that online submissions are often clearer than handwritten submissions – at times the handwriting can be difficult to understand,” explains Monaghan.

2017 and beyond

This year, if the current growth is maintained, the institution could see up to 10% of exams delivered through the Blackboard Learn platform, and to get a much a greater consistency in the use of the VLE. “We want to see the interest that we’ve had in the last three years growing even more. We want to deliver a system that is stable and we are doing it by a constantly refining process.”

In conclusion, the University of Sheffield is broadening it exam delivery platform, and driving up the quality of exams by having a greater choice of tools at the academics disposal to allow them to deliver a more varied and engaging exam experience for students. This initiative is giving the whole community a more efficient and environmentally friendly way to measure the quality of its education.


*Danny Monaghan – Senior Learning Technologist at the University of Sheffield.

*Photos by: AFP Oli Scarff

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