An overwhelmed Moodle server, missing emails, and exam stress: January Online Economics Exams

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay 

This year’s January exams were radically different from previous years. Although it was not the first time that LSE conducted online exams, the unexpected technical difficulties that happened during them still posed unusual challenges to students dispersed all over the world. 

EC102 and EC210 exams took place on January 11th. They were supposed to last for 4 hours 15 minutes and 2 hours 15 minutes respectively. However, a Moodle technical failure and issues in department communication had repercussions that might shed light on how the department and the school can better answer student needs and protect the integrity of exams.

Before the exam took place,  a second-year student taking economics courses expressed concerns on the level of difficulty of the exams on Unitu, a student voice platform where students can post issues anonymously and interact with staff. “Our Micro professor said that the January exam will require much more than two hours of work and that we will have to think about it for most of the day, including ‘while we eat and go to sleep’,” said the student. “Our Econometrics professor has said that the January exams will include ‘twists’ not seen in previous years.” Fiona, the Undergraduate Programme Assistant, later resolved the issue by saying, “It is never the plan to make online examination harder,” and we encourage students to “follow the time on the exam paper cover.”

In the Q&A session for EC102 exams, course conveners also reassured students that by adding the extra one hour for scanning, there would be ample time for students to complete the exam to the best of their abilities.

The potential increase in the level of difficulty together with  timed exam conditions added to students’ anxiety on the day of the exam. Both exams were supposed to take place at 12pm GMT. However, from 12:00pm to 12:20pm, Moodle was unresponsive and many students could not access the examination paper. While some students were able to get the paper from friends or course groups, others were left stranded.

In the Examination Rubric for EC102 January exams, a section detailing how to handle “technical difficulties” advises students to email the LSE technology support team. However, in a timed exam situation, such methods are not very helpful. The technological support team was only able to respond around 40 mins after the exam started.

“Those 15 minutes were the most stress I’d ever been in during an exam; the panic was terrible and I could barely think straight to do the actual exam,” a student taking the EC210 exam said, “I was in such a bad state of mind that I didn’t complete the exam nearly to the standard I should have.”

Forty minutes after the exam started, some EC102 students received an email regarding getting an extra 20 minutes from Narmin Crorie, the Undergraduate Examinations and Assessment Officer. Between 1:04pm and 1:10pm,  EC210 students received notification of an extension of 20 minutes. Around a 100 EC210 students wrote an open letter to the school regarding the exam which noted that a “considerable fraction” of students did not receive the email notification of the first 20 minute extension.

Students who already face unfavorable examination conditions found that being left in an ill-informed state causes them “even more difficulty in concentrating,” as a EC210 student, who took her exams in her parent’s small apartment with her mother and sister in meetings on either side of her, tells The Beaver.  After receiving the 20 minute extension email for EC102 students,  she says that she “kept checking her emails through the rest of the [EC210] exam in hopes that [she] could get the extra 20 minutes as well, which was obviously very distracting.” 

Students were not expected to keep an eye on email notifications during exams. In an Economics UG Timed Exams FAQ published on Moodle under  “Internet problems: Am I expected to be online continuously?”, the department states that “a minimal amount of internet is expected in order to complete your timed exams…internet access is only required at the beginning and at the end of the process, not continuously.” The examination rubrics posted on Moodle for the EC210 and EC102 exams include a section on “How to handle queries during the assessment” and advises students to “report an issue with the examination [by] please [emailing]” It further warns students “not [to] expect a reply during the examination period itself.”

An EC102 student told The Beaver, “Since I’m not supposed to have access to the Internet during the exam, I didn’t check my email on time. So, I didn’t see the email before I submitted the paper, and I don’t think it is my fault.” The student is not the only person that submitted the exam before knowing of the time extension. Another EC102 student said that he missed the email because he was “focused on getting the paper done” after already losing the first 15 minutes due to Moodle crashing.

At 2:58pm, 20 minutes after the extended deadline for the EC210 exam, some students received another email saying that they have until 3:30pm to submit their exam via email as the alternative link was not working. A student majoring in Economics said, “I am livid with the school’s resolution, people could have been sharing answers after submitting, and then be told they have more time with which they can just copy/paste their friends’ answers.” 

A day later on January 12th, the EC210 students sent their open letter to the school and the department, stating that “[they] believe that technological irregularities as well as multiple instantaneous and miscommunicated alterations in exam length have made this assessment inconsistent with LSE’s standards of academic integrity.” The students requested that the school not count the January exams towards their final grade and make summer exams 24 hours.   

On the same day, the Economics department emailed students saying that “to avoid a repeat of problems while technical issues are still being investigated, we have made the decision, in consultation to the school, to change all remaining January 2021 exams to 24 hours.” This included the EC100 exam.  A number of EC102 students were unsatisfied, telling The Beaver that it is unfair having timed exams compromise their performance.

The school offered prompt apologies to students. After receiving a large number of emails from students expressing frustrations, Dr Dimitra Petropoulou apologised that they “will not be able to answer each [student] individually” on the day of the exam, and promised to keep students informed. Mini, the Head of Programme Delivery, said, “We would like to apologise again for the disruption caused and any distress you experienced as a result.” On January 20th, two options were presented to EC210 students: they could either have their mark for the January assessment count as normal, or they could defer the January assessment (after having already attempted it) to August or June by completing a form by January 29th, without knowing their January exam mark.

A Philosophy and Economics student tells The Beaver that it is “a stressful decision” and many students are unsatisfied with the two options given. The department held a town hall meeting on January 26th for students who wish to speak further, but a student informed The Beaver that during the meeting  the department could not provide a satisfying  answer. They further added, “I have never felt so insignificant, the Econ department clearly didn’t care what the students had to say, and I don’t think they listened to a single word that was said.”

For EC102 students, there was no update after the 20 minute extension email. The Beaver reached out to Narmin Crorie, who is responsible for “advisory support for all matters related to BSc exams,” according to the Department of Economics website, through email and phone but has received no response so far.

However, according to the school, student performance was very strong. In a January Economics Exam report available on Moodle, it was shown that after rescaling, 57% of the students who took EC100 and EC220 received a first.  It also stated that “It is important to note that these distributions are still quite favourable relative to the average of past distribution.” Professor Pischke, the head of the Economics Department, also provided comments through the school’s media team: “Many students were able to complete the exam normally and a large number of submissions were received within the extended timeframe. The marking also indicates that students largely were able to perform well in the exam.” Moreover, EC102 student representatives conducted a survey on January Exams and among the 29 students who responded to the survey, 24 of them believed that “the right amount of time was given to complete the exam,” and they “appreciated the extra time given.”

An Actuarial Science student, who took the exam at home in Asia after dinner, told The Beaver that he does not think his performance was negatively impacted as he “kept [himself] cool knowing that they were provided with double the amount of time expected in a normal exam.”

Students were keen to understand  the decision process behind the school’s resolution on the two options. Regarding the EC210 retake option, Professor Pischke says that “this solution was proposed after listening to suggestions from students along with consultations with the exams office, the Academic Registrar, and the Chair of the School Exam Board to make sure any remedy was within the School regulations and feasible.”

Furthermore, many students not from the Economics department but taking Economics courses told The Beaver that they were not included in direct email communication of the changes to summer examination policy and had to overhear from friends or rely on course group chats.

The department promised to investigate the technical failures. The Beaver emailed the technological support team, and it suggested contacting the Eden Center.  Through the school’s media team, the spokesman from the Eden Centre said, “it was discovered that the database server in place was not sufficiently powerful to cope with the surge of requests it received at midday. This was replaced with a server approximately eight times the size which was able to handle the load. A server of similar power will be used for the summer exam period.” 

The school’s media team did not comment on whether there were any backup or risk assessment plans before the exams took place. An EC102 student, who wished to maintain anonymity, said, “I find it completely bewildering how no one seemed to consider any issues with 900+ students accessing a server at the same time. Where was the technical consideration? This is basic stuff to consider.” Another student also commented, “Why was there no contingency plan for Moodle crashing? Did it really not ever occur to them that Moodle could crash when 1600 students (roughly 1000 for EC102 and 600 for EC210) were refreshing the page over and over? That’s actually crazy.”

The Beaver also inquired into how the technical failures during Economics exams will influence the examination policy of other departments. Without specifying whether communications between departments took place, the school’s media team claims that “More widely, the School has learnt from the assessment periods in summer 2020 and January 2021. We are reviewing the technology used as well as the processes to improve both the service and the communication with the LSE community during the assessment period in summer 2021.”
According to internal documentation read by The Beaver, in response to the Student Union’s Proposals, the Online Assessment Project (OAP) team made recommendations to the Education committee suggesting that “technical issues” and “home disruption” should be added as extenuating circumstances (EC) categories. On March 8th, the School released an assessment support package that includes “hardware failure” and “needed to sit an assessment in inappropriate locations.”  Besides this, the School will continue to rescale the grades according to historical data on the course and utilize an ‘all deferral requests granted’ policy.

*Quotes have been edited for clarity and length. 

Additional reporting was contributed by Marianne Hii.

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