Digital exams to help Monash University save AU$7 million

By the end of 2020, 80% of all exams issued by the university will be e-assessments.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

Monash University will free up approximately AU$7 million per annum when it moves 80% of all student exams online by next year. 

Monash University research, education, and business intelligence delivery leader Cliff Ashford said the savings estimate accounts for only marking exams with essay questions and does not factor in the cost of other exams, such as those with multiple choice questions.

"To pull in people just to mark [essay exams] it's highly expensive and highly ineffective," he said.

Each year, the university issues 360,000 exams, which is equivalent to 8.5 million sheets of A4 paper or 1,000 trees.

Not only were paper-based exams damaging to the environment, Ashford said, it also required extensive manual data entry, tracking analytics was non-existent, and it also meant exams were exposed to human error.

"There was a horrible story where one of our senior academics rearranged his office and moved some paper exams that were in these bin bags putting them on the nearest shelf near his bin and he forgot to move it one morning and the cleaner thought it was recycling and shredded 40 exam papers," Ashford said.

Read also: How intelligent technology revolutionized manual processes at Purdue University (TechRepublic)

Speaking at the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Public Sector Summit in Canberra this week, Ashford said since 2015 the university has been taking a step-by-step phase approach toward introducing e-assessments.

It started with a small pilot, but it wasn't until semester one in 2017 when the university decided to move 0.5% of all exams online, which was equivalent to 600 seats.

This progressively increased to 8% of all exams and 10,000 seats in semester two in the same year. This involved building a custom Wi-Fi installation into one of its exam halls and wiring every desk to power and network. Ashford said at this time, the university made the conscious decision to provide laptops to students and have paper backups of exam papers.

By semester one this year, Monash University had made 30% of all exams into e-assessments and began to enable students to bring-your-own-devices (BYOD). Ashford highlighted BYOD as an important decision to "prove we could do BYOD in the future. I'm not going to be buying enough laptops for every student at the university."

Ashford said by next year, when 80% of all exams are e-assessments, the environment will be entirely BYOD.

He attributed the university's ability to scale the e-assessment project to AWS's cloud service.

"We dialled AWS up to make it work to make sure there wasn't any ability for performance issues when we had 15,000 students sit exams together. We were using more AWS than all the rest of their computation in Australia at the time, mainly because we wanted this to work perfectly," Ashford said.

Although while most exams will soon be e-assessments, there are will always be parts that remain paper-based, Ashford said, pointing to drawing a sketch to a question as an example. 

"We will always support paper," he said.

Disclosure: Aimee Chanthadavong travelled to Amazon Web Services Public Sector Summit in Canberra courtesy of Amazon Web Services.

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