Live-action play: Online live exams
Sunday, August 1, 2021
Following the article on online recorded exams in MT's April issue, music teacher Georgia Kaponi and LCME examiner Anne Bull make the case for online live exams, which they believe are here to stay.
LCME Online Live: A teacher's view
It was interesting to read Karen Marshall's experiences of embracing recorded examination platforms offered by different exam boards [MT April, pp.12–13]. As a teacher who has worked with London College of Music Examinations (LCME) since 2009, I have used the recorded facility offered by LCME's digital arm, ISoM (International School of Musicians). However, during the pandemic, the online live exams appealed, and I now use them exclusively.
In my view, these exams are the closest you can get to a live, face-to-face experience. There are no worries about parents or teachers uploading the videos, the retakes, performing to a device with no audience, or the perfectionism of students and teachers wondering whether the recording is the best it can possibly be.
For me as a teacher, this option closes the gap between exam sessions; suddenly, you can book an exam for the stage the pupil is at now. If a pupil is ready in March, you don't have to wait until June. If a pupil is struggling to be ready, then the flexibility of online exams removes the stress. I just wait until the candidate is ready.
From a professional point of view, the cash flow is easier to manage, with a greater regularity of income, spread more equally over the months, offering structure and flexibility. This allows me to structure my teaching throughout the year. Of course, there were teething problems at the beginning of online exams, as at the beginning of anything new. We are reliant on the audio hardware of students and there is the odd latency problem – yet this is very minimal and rare.
I embraced the idea of digital teaching in early March 2020, before lockdown, and set up my studio with an investment in proper audio interfaces, transferred all my pupils online, and have been teaching online since. Exams have come and gone, mostly without seeing a pupil in the same room. Some pupils have started the piano on Zoom, and taken exams, never experiencing them face-to-face.
Also, they perform on their own pianos, and this removes a great deal of pressure. I have found that children like the online process, as it's a familiar world for them. My studio now runs highly successful online concerts at Halloween, Christmas, and Easter, with 32 students on average. At Christmas, I sent out 100 different connections (all with permissions) so friends and family could participate in the online experience.
Of course, I miss the human interaction, but my attitude is that we need online education and assessment. Both have now taken their place in our lives and will continue to do so for as long as COVID-19 remains part of our reality, and perhaps beyond.
LCME Online Live: An examiner's view
Last year I was examining in Birmingham when the country closed down. Straight after Cheltenham and the Gold Cup. Who can forget that last bit of freedom? Not long after this, LCME began to offer recorded exams in response to strong demand: all that preparation for the spring session and nowhere to put it. Children wanted to take their assessments to move on to the next grade, to prove themselves, to do their teachers’ and parents’ bidding, or simply just for fun.
There were teething problems, with video upload difficulties and some negative responses on social media. People longed to go back to face-to-face – and there was hope, as we all ate out to help out, started meeting up in person again within the UK, and almost behaved as normal. Then the tables turned, and we were back to square one and more. It was evident that ‘proper’, ‘normal’, face-to-face exams would have to be put largely on hold, and recorded exams got another bite of the cherry.
But not just recorded – live exams too. The LCME embraced a digital partner, ISoM (International School of Musicians). Here was a brilliantly conceived digital platform, not worked out at speed on the back of an envelope, but constructed pre-pandemic with a view to offering a service throughout the world to children and their teachers, who perhaps would find taking online exams easier, cheaper, and more accessible.
The marking structure is identical to face-to-face, with identical report forms. The exams directly took the place of in-person grades, and are running now, all day and every day, with parents and teachers able to choose any slot with few restrictions. Children embrace the technology – it's no different from online school lessons, after all – and are usually the ones to connect to Zoom, and certainly end the meeting! It's normal, like they are embracing any aspects of modern technology.
Examiners were trained to run exams on Zoom, with aural tests (all pre-recorded) and sight-reading (shared screen). Guitarists are able to see their chord charts and hear their backing tracks; music theatre performers can dress up at home and perform, some in creative shoe boxes, others in school halls, socially distanced. Pianists can play on their own pianos – the electronic keyboard doesn't have to go in the car boot. Now, I sit at my desk in the deepest, remotest countryside, and connect with candidates all over the world, easily and promptly. In this last week, I have whizzed around from Malta to Zambia, from Gaza to Mauritius, from Wiltshire to Turkey, from Sicily to Milan.
Of course, there are occasional problems. Gaza and I were one-all on losing the internet before the exam session began. Sometimes the music theatre lighting isn't ideal, and there can be a slight latency issue, although this is now a rare occurrence. There is the occasional echo, and the result can be a little dependent on the quality of the candidate's online equipment. But there is a connectivity call for each exam to ensure optimal sound quality is achieved. These are conducted at least five days before the exam so the set-up can be rectified to minimise any issues.
As an examiner, I rarely receive anything but enthusiasm from candidates. It's fun having a chat, perhaps marking an exam at three in the morning while it's a sultry afternoon in Sri Lanka. As in face-to-face, marks reflect what you hear on the day. The post-pandemic world is going to be about learning to live with COVID-19. We don't know if the live examiner experience will be revived, but no matter the future, the online experience is always going to be part of it. It offers a choice that students and teachers didn't have before, which can only be a good thing.