By Callum Florance
Pepper Grinder is a Peppercorn series providing news and reporting relevant to ANU law students via Peppercorn’s Facebook page and biannual magazine.
In late 2022 and early 2023, Peppercorn approached the ANU College of Law (CoL) with questions around whether online, take-home exams were being phased out. The CoL had just announced its intention to phase out the Juris Doctor Online (JDO) program, which raised questions around whether there was a general push towards more in-person teaching and learning (including for exams).
The CoL noted in February 2023 in response to Peppercorn that the Vice-Chancellor and university Senior Executive Group were still considering the broader policy on exams for 2023. Now, the time has come. For this edition of Pepper Grinder, we will explore the CoL’s recently announced decision to move to in-person exams for compulsory law courses.
In mid-to-late July 2023, the CoL sent the following email to ANU law students:
This email signals the end of in-person exams for compulsory law courses, but provides some flexibility for holding online exams for electives (for now).
This email was followed by a commitment to host a forum to answer any questions that students have about this decision. This runs counter to a university environment that emphasises social justice and engaging with communities prior to making decisions that impact them. This was just promulgation of the decision, not meaningful and participatory consultation.
Peppercorn initially sent through several questions to the CoL in response to this email, with the CoL responding that these questions will be answered in the forum. The CoL decided to host this forum on the Friday before the start of Semester Two, so it was unlikely that many working or interstate students could have made it. The Associate Dean (Education) Associate Professor Wayne Morgan and ANU CoL Student and Education Support Senior Manager Nicole King lead the discussion and fielded questions.
Given this, the remainder of this article will be structured with the questions that we raised and the answers provided in that forum.
As the CoL explains, the return to in-person exams is a solution to several problems, including Admissions Boards, views on a ‘proper legal education’ from the legal profession, and integrity issues that the CoL believe are directly caused by online exams.
It is also unclear if the CoL will consult more broadly on a shift towards the use of more intrusive forms of online invigilating, or whether the CoL will just let us know once the decision is made.
In a university that heralds itself as producing ‘Thought Leaders’, it is sad to hear the CoL is unwilling to lead on modern and inclusive approaches to teaching and learning and is, instead, happily accepting the views of the Admissions Boards and the profession.
One day, we may see the CoL become a leader in legal education... just not today.
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What are the reasons why the CoL has decided to enforce in-person exams for compulsory law courses?
The CoL noted the requirement of admission boards, which are said to accredit Australian law schools and influence decisions around the teaching and learning at those law schools. The issue facing the CoL is that it deals with Admissions Boards around Australia, not just the relevant State or Territory Board like most other Australian law schools.
The CoL explains that the Victorian and NSW Boards have recently made clear that law schools should return to in-person, invigilated exams. The CoL referred to the NSW Legal Profession Admission Board’s decision on 30 June 2023 to require its candidates for the Diploma in Law to sit exams in-person as evidence of this.
The CoL added that it could not influence Admissions Boards to enter the 21st century understanding of teaching and learning, including the technology that facilitates a more effective and inclusive learning environment. The CoL added this is likely because the Admissions Boards are composed of senior judges of the jurisdiction, who are likely older and have particular views on what a legal education looks like.
COVID-19 and online exams
The CoL notes the shift to online exams was only a temporary COVID-19 measure, including mentioning this to Admissions Boards at the time that this was only temporary. The CoL argues that this is not a new policy to move towards in-person exams, but rather a return to the norm prior to COVID-19 and to what it refers to as ‘business-as-usual’.
Views of the profession
The CoL states that it engages regularly with law firms and a frequent question from the partners at those firms is: ‘When are you returning to a “proper” system of examination?’ The CoL argues that the perceptions of these firms who accept ANU graduates as a pathway into the profession are important considerations.
Will the in-person exams be written exams or will laptops be allowed? If laptops are allowed and required to hand in Word documents to Turnitin, what benefits are there to being in-person?
The CoL revealed that in-person exams for 2023 will be written exams.
The CoL said it sympathises with students not wanting to write exams in booklets. The CoL stated that it has argued that the ANU move towards a system of invigilated exams that are held online, i.e., coming to a venue in-person, conducting the exam on your laptop (‘BYOD – Bring Your Own Device’), and uploading the exam to Wattle.
The CoL believes the ANU is moving towards this system, but it has not been rolled out in time for this policy change and will not be in place by the end of 2023. The CoL said it will be engaging, along with other Deans of Colleges around ANU, with online assessment system companies to finalise which system the ANU will be using. The CoL emphasised it will be its top priority to push for this BYOD model of exams for 2024. The CoL also explained the BYOD model will look more like Proctorio, which is a remote access software that students download to their personal computer and can be used to monitor students on their personal computers.
The CoL stated that you can only bring hardcopy items into the exam, noting that students who rely on e-books will be negatively impacted. The CoL added that water bottles will be allowed, no electronic devices will be allowed, and the ‘old-fashioned’ standard of what is allowed in an exam hall will be applied.
Did the CoL consult with students before making this decision? If so, what was the outcome of this consultation? If not, why not?
The CoL believes it is not alone in this and that the ANU convened a working party that met from 2021 until midway through 2023. This involved consultation with ANUSA and the now defunct PARSA, which the CoL noted many law students are in those associations and that this is sufficient law student representation. The working party ultimately recommended to the ANU Academic Board that the ANU should move back to a system of in-person, invigilated exams.
As noted above, ANUSA and the now defunct PARSA were consulted on this decision. The CoL also noted there were student surveys through the Chancellery, and a majority of students wanted exams to remain online. The CoL noted that the views of students are not as important as addressing the issues it has with online exams.
The CoL did allow questions and advice from students in the forum, including on how to make the process smoother. However, the CoL explained that a return to online exams will not be considered.
Are in-person exams for electives intended to be rolled out in 2024, or is it the CoL’s intention to enable course convenors for electives to choose the mode of the exam (in-person or online)?
The CoL explained that it only intends for compulsory courses to have an in-person exam component and that it will not introduce this as a requirement for elective courses. However, it left open the possibility for elective course convenors to implement in-person exams if they wished. The CoL also clarified that its in-person exams policy will only apply to final exams, rather than mid-semester exams.
We understand there are already Education Action Plan (EAP) adjustments that can be made for students undertaking assessments, including those who experience anxiety during timed exams. Does the CoL agree or disagree that in-person exams lead to greater stress and anxiety for students, rather than online exams?
The CoL noted that students who need to sit an exam online were supported in this prior to COVID-19 and that the policy will be to continue supporting these students with online exams going forward.
The CoL said this would require students to be registered with ANU Access & Inclusion and that online exams must be a stated condition in the EAP. If this is satisfied, then the CoL will ensure you are accommodated. The CoL said the only change will be that online accommodated exams will be delivered in a computer lab on campus, which is distinct from the status quo of the past few years where students undertook exams from a location of their choosing.
The CoL committed to working with ANU Access & Inclusion to make this transition as smooth as possible.
Students can type, format, erase, add, and make many other changes in a Word document that they cannot do with the same efficiency and effectiveness in-person. Will the CoL ensure that exam content is moderated to suit a written/in-person exam format?
The CoL noted it will be working with ANU law course convenors who will be managing in-person invigilated exams to ensure this is a smooth transition, including what the exams will look like and to prepare students who will be sitting these exams.
The CoL acknowledged that the practice of handwriting is largely outdated in the age of COVID-19 and online work, but added there will be some tips shared with students on handwritten exams including writing on every second line and practicing handwriting your exams.
The CoL further added that whether an exam was closed-book or open-book would be left up to the convenor.
The CoL acknowledged that students would likely not be able to write as much as an online exam, but explained that this is not a disadvantage. The CoL noted that a bad habit that was developing for online exams was copy-pasting irrelevant material, explaining the standard of answers went down compared to handwritten answers. The CoL said this will likely be taken into account in terms of marking.
The CoL noted its policy on correcting illegible handwriting in exams that has existed since before the COVID-19 pandemic as a protection for students who are concerned about whether their handwriting will impact their mark.
Will the Col provide any communication around the strengths and weaknesses of in-person and online exams, including advice and resources for students managing this stressful transition?
The CoL did not directly respond to this question, but did note that it will work with course convenors to ensure students receive adequate advice.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to many workplaces embracing flexible work and new technologies, including remote and online work environments. The CoL appears to reject this new era of flexible work and new technologies, including by phasing out the JDO and returning to in-person exams. What is the broader goal of the CoL in emphasising in-person modes of teaching and learning, over online modes of teaching and learning? Does the CoL believe this approach more accurately reflects a modern workplace?
In response to a query on whether Admissions Boards should be dictating the learning and teaching requirements of ANU or whether ANU should lead on the learning and teaching of Admissions Boards, the CoL explained that it cannot influence the Admissions Boards. The CoL acknowledged that producing work under time pressure can be achieved in-person as well as online, and it emphasised that in-person and handwritten exam skills are not irrelevant.
However, the CoL did not directly address the question of the relevance of in-person exams for the future workplaces of students.
The rise of Generative AI (e.g., Chat GPT) and the worries of lecturers in Week 12 of Semester 1 2023 has led some to speculate that the Semester 1 2023 exams were riddled with pickups of student assessments form Turnitin’s new AI detector. Does the CoL believe that shifting to in-person exams is a fair and proportionate response to the risks of AI, given that tools are developing to detect the use of AI and that Generative AI cannot accurately explain the law and will likely lead to greater student failures than passes?
The CoL noted that prior to online examinations, there were rarely any academic integrity cases arising from exams. The CoL state there are now allegedly more serious cases arising from exams and a dramatic increase in academic integrity cases directly arising from exams, adding that it likely does not capture all of them.
The CoL also noted there are issues of identity that also arise in online exams, as it is unclear if students are producing their own work or reproducing work off others. The CoL did suggest that Generative AI will get better and there is a risk that it will impact exams in the future, but the CoL did not directly answer this question.
The rise of Generative AI likely raised concerns for an already overburdened academic integrity system at the CoL and provided another reason to minimise the potential risks that could emerge from the use of AI for online exams.