EXCLUSIVE: Online exams and recorded lectures could be here to stay, Graham Virgo tells The Tab

Virgo hinted at the possibility of the continuation of open book, online, or take-home exams post-pandemic

On Monday, The Tab spoke to Graham Virgo to get the scoop on arrangements for Easter term: we spoke to him about everything from paying rent over the vacation to this year’s graduation plans to his thoughts on this year’s BNOC list and you can check it out here.

But one thing he said which really surprised us, is that exams could potentially remain online in the coming years, with teaching also being open to a more “blended learning” approach. Here’s the exclusive scoop:

Recorded lectures could be here to stay

Cambridge was the first university to commit to online lectures for the 2020/2021 academic year back in May, and what a year it’s been. This year saw the loss of the days of awkward pre-lecture small talk with the girl you met in freshers’ week whose name you forgot almost instantly, but are these days set to return?

Graham Virgo told The Tab that next year tuition is likely to be a mix of online and in-person learning. He told The Tab: “My vision would be not to say that absolutely everything is going to be online but also not that we’re going to go absolutely back to what we did before.”

Virgo said that there were benefits to both online and in-person learning, and seems to champion a blended approach to learning

He stresses that he is “well aware that there are an awful lot of students who want to be in Cambridge for the Cambridge experience, and that is an in-person experience” and so in-person learning, including lectures will make a return.

He suggested that many students feel “they can cope with recorded lectures fine, but it’s not the same as an in-person lecture” and that many students wish they “could go to a lecture and see people talking about these things in person.” Likewise, he says that whilst supervisions can be done online “you miss something of that in-person experience.”

However, Virgo also pointed out that recorded lectures have “positive benefits for inclusivity”, in particular for students with disabilities who have been campaigning for recorded lectures for a long time. Virgo said that the university had “previously been gradually rolling out lecture Captcha” before the pandemic, and expects that “that’s going to be rolling out a lot more” after the pandemic.

He also stressed the need for faculties and departments to decide on what they want the future of learning to look like, saying: “I am very open to faculties and departments saying we want to see more blended learning.”

He pointed to models such as “flipping the classroom where you have that first where you go to an in-person session having seen that lecture and then going to a different sort of discussion”, saying that different models would work best for different subjects. 

Exam formats are likely to be more flexible in the future

We also asked Virgo what the future of exams is likely to be, following this year’s shift to largely online exams. Virgo told The Tab he would be “very surprised if we go back to what we did before”, saying that “in large parts of the university” there have been discussions on keeping exams online. 

This doesn’t mean that exams will be “entirely online” but rather this will “depend on the subject”, giving some subjects the option to have alternative exam formats if they desire.

He said this is something which the university had been “doing a lot of work [on] before the pandemic”, and that he had “been pushing with others on being more flexible in the way we assess.” He said he sees the pandemic as “a perfect example of an opportunity that we really need to seize” in terms of rethinking Cambridge’s approach to examinations.

When pressed on what this increased flexibility could look like, he suggested potential alternatives to the traditional closed-book exam hall situation, such as “open book exams, take-home exams, and online exams.”

Again, he stressed the need for flexibility between faculties and departments, saying: “I think it’s important that the university doesn’t say everybody’s got to examine in this way, but for others, I think it’s saying yeah, here’s permission, you’ve been experimenting and if you think this works, stick with it.”

The Tab spoke to Siyang Wei and Rensa Gaunt from the Cambridge SU about how this news might impact the accessibility of the exam format. The SU called on the university to move non-essential teaching online last term, partly in the interest of accessibility for disabled students.

Siyang and Rensa said: “We’ve known for a long time that the traditional ‘Cambridge’ exam format doesn’t work for everyone, especially disabled and other marginalised students, and are glad the University seems open to maintaining some new modes of assessment. Making assessment accessible is essential to addressing attainment gaps, as well as reducing the stress and anxiety students feel throughout their time at Cambridge.”

However, they also addressed that “some of the changes made this year, such as proctored online exams, have introduced new difficulties.”

They suggest: “Whatever decisions faculties make about assessment going forward, it’s essential that they include academic representatives and incorporate student feedback from the start.

“Similarly, any permanent shift to more online learning must include meaningful consultation to establish that students want it, and come with investment in infrastructure and staff support to ensure it is high quality.”

On lectures, Rensa and Siyang said: “Disabled students have been pushing for years for lecture recordings to be made available, so we welcome the university’s plan to expand lecture capture and allow recording to continue even once we are able to have in-person lectures again.
“This doesn’t resolve all accessibility issues, however, and requires investment in areas such as recording quality, closed captioning, and staff training to ensure it can benefit all students.”

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