Digitising Exam and Assessments at NMBU

The Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) is located in the south-eastern part of Norway. The university consists of 2 campuses, split between the country’s capital, Oslo, and the nearby municipality Ås, and offers a total of 64 study programmes, mainly focused on environmental and biological sciences.

With 5200 students and 1700 employees, they generate knowledge and drive innovation within areas such as food, health, environmental protection, climate and sustainable use of natural resources.

NMBU - The Road to Digital Exams

NMBU’s Campus Ås

The Need to Go Digital in Education

NMBU started their WISEflow-project in 2016. Before that, nearly all their written exams were submitted on paper. A few were conducted on the institution’s own computers, but the process had to be monitored by invigilators, making sure the students were not communicating with each other.

For NMBU, it was important to be up to date on what was happening in the Norwegian educational sector. Combined with the observation that NMBU’s students had experience with digital tools and expected that an increasing amount of their student experience would become digital, this became the drive for a switch to digital exams and assessments. They wanted to be able to provide feedback digitally, and they had a wish to digitise the assessment process to be able to conduct assessments on screens rather than paper. Lastly, digitising exams and the related exam and assessment processes was also a way to reduce the amount of work connected to packing and sending exam submissions


Specific Demands for a Digital Exam Solution

To gain some insight into what the process has been like so far, we spoke with Kari Bauge, adviser in the academic administration of NMBU. Kari Bauge has been responsible for the overall conduction of digital exams, administering exam flows and training the different user groups involved in the exam: the students, the faculty members responsible for creating exams within the different subjects, the assessors and the invigilators. She also coordinates with other departments which partake in the digital exam process.

According to her, the main reason for digitising exams and assessments was an effort to improve the alignment between the students’ courses and their exams: “We want our students to be able to use the digital tools in their exams in the same way they use them in their everyday studies. We want digital exams to make it possible for students to be assessed in their subject areas in the most appropriate way possible.”

“A large part was also due to a wish to increase the efficiency of the planning and conduction of exams, hopefully saving manual labour time before, during and after exams,” she adds.

As an educational institution with a focus on bio- and environmental science, NMBU had some specific demands for a digital exam and assessment platform:

“We wanted an exam solution to include functionalities to conduct digital exams in our existing exam formats, especially essay and multiple-choice, and a combination of the two. We also had a wish for the solution to include functionalities that would allow us to conduct exams from all of our subject areas digitally.”


Implementing a Digital Exam Platform 

“We started out with a pilot programme to test the waters of digital change,” Kari Bauge tells: “We experienced that the implementation of the system overall went great. We met no considerable challenges in getting to know and using the system during the implementation phase. The largest challenges we had were securing staff to act as technical invigilators and the infrastructure to cope with digital exams, like access to power and wireless internet.”

NMBU experienced that the follow-up during the implementation was good, both on general information, training and also user-support, when they experienced errors or had questions regarding the system.

At NMBU, the initial focus during the implementation was to become competent with WISEflow, ensuring that they could handle all the parts of the new exam process. The administration at NMBU had training courses with an instructor from UNIwise to get used to using WISEflow. Afterwards, they have arranged internal courses for course coordinators before each exam period. These are divided between the different modules (so far FLOWlock and FLOWmulti), so the course coordinators are trained within the module relevant to them.

To ensure a positive outlook on the new system among the faculty members, NMBU chose a specific strategy: “We began the implementation of digital exams with those course coordinators who volunteered freely at first. Then, when more and more course coordinators began to see the advantages of digitising the exam process, we escalated accordingly.”


Digital Exams Have Been a Positive Change

The user reception of the new system has been enthusiastic, according to Kari Bauge: “We’ve observed a little insecurity in advance among the students, but after they completed an exam in the new system, the feedback has been great. We completed a survey of student experiences with the transition to digital exams (after the pilot and the exams in spring 2017), and most students were very satisfied with the possibility of sitting exams digitally.”

“Educators and assessors have also much appreciated the transition,” she adds, “especially they value that it is much easier to read machine typed submissions rather than handwritten ones.”

Overall, the switch has been positive, Kari Bauge says, but some obstacles remain. As they have yet to complete the full switch to digital exams, a lot of resources from the faculties, IT and Property Services are required to maintain both digital exams and the remaining traditional exams.


Challenges Still Arise

NMBU has implemented digital exams as a part of their routines and experienced some of the advantages a digital exam and assessment platform can provide, but a lot of resources are still spent, due to them running both a manual and a digital exam process, instead of one single digital procedure. The largest challenge by far is related to invigilators. With two separate exam processes, NMBU needs two sets of invigilators: one for traditional exams and facilitation tasks/bathroom visits, and a set of technical invigilators for digital exams. The same challenge presents itself for the exam administration, as they have to plan two separate exam processes in their student administration system.

This means that the resources spent are not yet reduced and probably will not be until NMBU are able to make the switch to a completely digitised exam process. And one of the obstacles in that process is the need to use third-party software:

“We observe a great interest from both students and course coordinators to digitise our exams” Kari Bauge tells, “But so far it has been difficult in certain subjects, as we need access to third-party software in the exam situation. This limits our digitisation efforts in subjects like maths, computer science, statistics, physics and chemistry.”


Continuous Development to Solve These Issues 

This specific issue is one many HEIs have experienced when using WISEflow, so naturally, we sought to resolve it in some way. A solution was introduced in the WISEflow-update 2.13.0, released 2 March 2018, where we added the functionality “Whitelisting”, which enables links to be whitelisted in an exam flow, so students can access external resources and applications within the FLOWlock browser.

According to Kari Bauge, this sort of development within the WISEflow platform is a definite step in the right direction towards making digital exams feasible in subjects that rely heavily on specific software: “This opportunity will make us able to complete exams in more subjects where special applications, adapted to the specifics of the subject, are necessary to complete formulae, calculations, illustrations and more.”

Read our other cases on digital exams and assessments in higher education