"The supposedly “very rare” Inspera screw-ups had left many students stressed and upset to the point of tears."Adarsh Nayak with permission for varisty

Last Monday, I sat in the exam hall with the rest of my cohort and started typing my Medieval exam on my laptop - or rather, my college’s laptop. So far, so good. I began to think that maybe we’d survive this grand Inspera experiment after all. I was wrong.

Within 45 minutes, we were told that we would have to handwrite Section B of our exam. As Varsity reported, this turned out to only affect some students. I wasn’t affected and got to complete my exam as expected, but some of my friends weren’t so fortunate. They were reassured that they would receive extra time to account for having to handwrite and wait 15 minutes for paper, only to be told later that they were no longer allowed this extra time. All of this played out in a noisy exam hall that the examiners did not know how to manage.

“At every stage, faculty bureaucracy has failed to prepare effectively”

The problem started months before Monday 27th May. At every stage, faculty bureaucracy has failed to prepare effectively for the rollout of Inspera and any potential difficulties.

Let me set the scene. The faculty confirmed the new exam formats and informed us about laptop compatibility in December, when I raised the issue with my DoS after finding out that my Google Chromebook wasn’t compatible with the Inspera program. The DoS committee had challenged the faculty on the issue of compatibility long before this. I then brought up the problem alongside our faculty reps at an open Faculty meeting in Lent Term, where the faculty leadership evidently did not yet have a plan in place about how to deal with laptop incompatibility. They decided that they had maybe better have a think about how to find out how many students were affected, or if it was their responsibility or the colleges’.

Skip forward a few weeks, and we arrive at the exam venue. Some students, including myself, had thankfully managed to get a laptop on loan from college, whilst others had laptops waiting for them that had been provided by the university. They hadn’t had the chance to get used to typing on these new computers, but at least Inspera would work on them, right? For some, that was the case, but for others across the exam hall, loan laptop or not, the technical failure severely affected what was for most their first experience with this exam paper, let alone this exam format.

To make matters worse, in all of my exams no one in the room knew before they were told by students that we were allowed one A4 page of notes. It is not exactly a good start when the official examiners had no idea how the exam they were meant to invigilate functioned. And that was before Inspera decided to malfunction.

“The issues may seem small, yet they clearly demonstrate wider issues at play”

Instead of being gradually managed, the transition to Inspera-based exams has revealed some of the systemic problems facing the faculty and university. Where colleges couldn’t provide enough loan laptops or funding, students turned up to the exam hall to type on a new device without the same preparation. Many students who I have spoken to or who have raised the problem with the faculty reps were concerned whether older or less powerful laptops would survive the use of Inspera. The issues may seem small, yet they clearly demonstrate wider issues at play, where the faculty and university downplayed the influence of college and income discrepancies.

This lack of planning then extended to Monday’s exam. There were no members of the faculty in the room to reassure students or inform the examiners of any contingency measures, which it seemed to us were not in place. We received no apology later that day, only a vague promise of “mitigations”. The supposedly “very rare” Inspera screw-ups had left many students stressed and upset to the point of tears.


Mountain View

Thanks Debbie Prentice, but a trip to the North West isn’t enough

I was told by a member of the faculty leadership that the decision to introduce typed exams belonged to the previous administration and that they were simply acting out policies already put into place. How can we trust a faculty to make decisions with all students in mind if the current leadership uses their predecessors as an excuse, and are essentially trapped in cycles of inefficiency?

Even when they viewed the system as broken, attempts to fix it only multiplied the problems. I’m not saying that handwriting is a perfect system, especially when everyone now types supervision essays and the rest of the world is decidedly online. Yet, that system worked because it was equitable - everyone had access to pen and paper. Until Inspera and the faculties administering it can promise the same, typed exams will only make matters more stressful.