| University, Studies

"The digital tsunami has turned into a breath of fresh air"

The end of the winter semester is near and with it the examination period at the universities. In the middle of the lockdown – under difficult conditions. While the entire country has gone digital and most universities are still discussing how to design exams so that they can be "Corona-compliant", the University of Erfurt is already further along. And is already starting the second round of its online exams. With the blessing of the state government and the approval of the state data protection commissioner. Yes, the highest Thuringian data protection officer!

Hörsaal 3 an der Universität Erfurt
Even during exams, the lecture halls at the University of Erfurt remain empty in Corona times.

"We are definitely pioneers and are rather surprised at the reluctance of some universities," says Prof. Dr Walter Bauer-Wabnegg, President of the University of Erfurt. "And we decided very early on, in fact already after the first Corona wave, in the summer semester of 2020, for digital distance examinations. After all, what sense does it make if public life is shut down, we send all students to online teaching and then have them travel across the country again in public transport for face-to-face exams and congregate in lecture halls en masse? It is not just that we wouldn't have the spatial capacity for Corona-compliant exams, we also have a responsibility there - for the students as well as for the employees."

That the decision was a good one was already evident in the first round of examinations in the summer - even if the time for the search, decision, procurement, data protection clarification (!!!), installation and qualification of all those involved was more than "sporty". "But since our new examination regulations provide for electronic examinations as a special option anyway, regardless of the pandemic, it was only logical to take this step now," reports Prof. Dr. Gerd Mannhaupt, Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Erfurt. It was not only the lecturers who had been registering the need for electronic examinations for some time. In the sense of further developing teaching and against the background of digitalisation, there had been considerations for some time to introduce an electronic examination system not only for electronic distance examinations, but above all for electronic examinations on campus and a reasonable implementation of all written examination formats in terms of data protection, archiving and examination law. "With WISEflow, an examination software from the provider UNIwise, we now have a system with which written papers can be set and which students can submit digitally in an uncomplicated and secure manner," says Mannhaupt. "Lecturers can easily grade the papers, plagiarism checks are carried out automatically and there is no need to hold office hours or answer tons of e-mails for feedback on the performance. Last but not least, the work is archived securely and deleted at the end of the archiving period. In the future, we will also be able to manage final papers in such a way that the piles of papers in our offices do not slowly but surely reach the ceiling."

Professor Gerd Mannhaupt

The acceptance of the distance exams – after all, 15,520 exams with a maximum of 1528 exams in one day – was high. Only a few students took advantage of the opportunity to write their exams at one of the silent workstations under supervision, which the university had set up especially for those who did not have stable internet at home or did not want to be recorded by their webcam for checking during the exam – with a view to data protection, a concern initially expressed by many (see background Facial recognition with biometric data). Peter Hegemann, a student in the Master's programme "Special Needs Pedagogy", was mainly concerned that the hardware and internet connection would not hold up, he reports. "Fortunately, everything went smoothly - not least thanks to the good preparation we had, among other things, because we were offered a test exam in advance. Here we could ask questions again and clear up any uncertainties." But the distance exam doesn't change one thing: "If you don't study, you 'rattle through', even if there is the possibility of a 'free attempt' in the Corona semesters if you don't pass." Because even at home in front of the computer, aids like Google & Co. are not allowed. The exam software automatically blocks them for the duration of the exam. But it was not only the test exams that contributed to the successful introduction of the examination software: with the discontinuation of face-to-face lectures on campus and the start of online teaching, the University of Erfurt set up a "Digital Teaching Taskforce", which not only took care of the logistics and the solution of structural questions, but above all provided students and lecturers with extensive offers of help: With online training, a telephone consultation hour, an online regulars' table for exchanging information about technical problems, as well as a great deal of information and documents in specially set up digital forums (Moodle) – flanked by a website where the most important information can be accessed once again in bundled form. Always at the forefront is Gerd Mannhaupt, who, as Vice President for Academic Affairs and head of the task force, is also always in close contact with the Presidium and the Corona crisis team.

Even though Peter Hegemann is now coping well with online studies and distance exams – "the exchange with other students before and after is simply missing," he says. And that's why he, like many of his fellow students, is already looking forward to the "time after Corona" – to studying together on campus, having lunch together in the cafeteria, the personal exchange also with the lecturers and, of course, the campus life with parties on warm summer evenings. "It wasn't so long ago that we had heated discussions on campus about compulsory attendance in courses," Gerd Mannhaupt recalls. "Today, most people can't wait to get back to the lecture halls." In this respect, no one needs to fear that Erfurt's attendance university will become a "distance" university in the long term. "I don't think I'm exaggerating when I describe myself as someone who is not hostile to the digital world. However, I also only use digital tools and formats where they actually offer support. The direct exchange and immediate discussion about perspectives and explanations will again be conducted in social interaction on campus. Digital communication alone is not enough, although the state parliament – certainly also against the background of our intensive efforts – has now anchored the possibility of online examinations in the Corona Coat Act and an inclusion in the Thuringian Higher Education Act is to be expected. The campus will be the real space where we establish and maintain our networks in the long term. Informal exchanges and learning need the chance to pass each other and pause and sit together and drink coffee. I am very confident that, as soon as our health situation allows it again, we will reclaim our real campus, even though we have certainly taken a good step towards digitalisation under the Corona pressure, from which we will also benefit in the future. In this respect, I am glad that the 'digital tsunami' at the beginning of the summer semester 2020 has since turned into a 'breath of fresh air'."

Background: Facial recognition with biometric data
Automated facial recognition is used to identify students and reduce cheating attempts during off-campus examinations. In order to ensure a high level of acceptance among lecturers and students, technical measures must be implemented that can ensure this. To identify the person to be examined, a reference photo is taken when the person first registers for an examination with facial recognition. This is stored on WISEflow servers. Using Amazon Face Recognition, biometric values are determined from this. The accuracy of the values is limited to a medium level for reasons of data economy. During the check, photos of the test person are taken at irregular intervals and a certain value is calculated by means of algorithmic comparison with the reference data. If the value is low, the initial suspicion of a fraud attempt is obvious. All photos except for the reference photo are deleted after six months at the latest. It is intended to shorten the deletion period to a period directly after the evaluation. Only the suspected cases would then be stored longer until clarification (legal basis is Art. 9 para. 2 lit g) DSGVO).

Taskforce Digitale Lehre (Ansprechpersonen)
Professor Gerd Mannhaupt – Vice President forAcademic Affairs
(University of Erfurt)