This case study originally appears on the Educational Development Unit's case study pages

Dr Konstantinos Gkoutzis, Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Computing

I should start by admitting that the Department of Computing had an advantage when it comes to online assessment and teaching. Ever since I took over the role of First Year Coordinator, I immediately started pushing for a decrease in paper-based activities, due to the negative environmental impact involved in printing, as well as all the logistical issues that working with paper documents entails. This decision has proven to be invaluable, especially during the current health crisis.

Tests, Coursework and Marking

In 2016, I set up a workflow for marking our Programming tests online, instead of printing hundreds of pages of code to mark on paper. First, I collected the code in PDFs and uploaded them on Box, which is a cloud-based storage service that Imperial had just subscribed to at the time. I had prepared a folder for each module code and inside each one I had placed “Marked” and “Unmarked” folders, each containing subfolders with the usernames of the markers. I shared these folders with the markers, who were then able to pick up their scripts from the “Unmarked” subfolder and then upload their final version in the “Marked” subfolder. In the end, I collected the marked files and returned these to the students using individual password-protected subfolders on our DoC webserver. The same process can of course be replicated by using a single folder and simply overwriting the same file every time a change is made, since Box Enterprise can “remember” up to 100 different versions.

At this point I should note that these PDFs were generated by our LabTS system, which is a service produced by DoC that our students use in order to automatically test the functionality of their Programming code submissions. Our Second Year Coordinator, Dr Mark Wheelhouse, is maintaining and expanding this system further, constantly updating it to meet the ever-changing needs of our Department. The students upload their code on our GitLab service, which is an online file repository specifically aimed at software projects, maintained by our Computing Support Group. LabTS is seamlessly connected to GitLab in the background, so our students can upload their code and test it immediately via its web-based interface.

Even though other departments at Imperial use BlackBoard, at DoC we use our own custom-made VLE called CATe, created and updated by our Information Systems Coordinator, Silvana Zappacosta. This is where our students can retrieve lecture notes, submit exercises, and find their coursework marks. LabTS is also connected with CATe, so, when our students are ready to submit their code, they just press a button on LabTS and CATe automatically receives a unique key pointing to the code that has been uploaded on GitLab. This electronic submission process via our interconnected systems is explained to our students on their first week at DoC, and gradually becomes a part of their weekly routine.

We have since improved our methods even further, having hired a Senior Learning Technologist, Mr Ivan Procaccini, who is working on a wide variety of ed/tech tools, under the guidance of our Director of Software Engineering Practice, Dr Robert Chatley. One of these web-based tools is called “eMarking”, which has integrated the functionalities of the aforementioned marking workflow into a single system, being able to retrieve the files from CATe/LabTS, assign them to the markers, retrieve the marked versions, and finally make these available to the students. With the help of this system, as of this academic year, we have also converted all the coursework exercises of our small-group Personalised Tutorials to electronic submissions only, thus reducing our printing footprint even further.

When digital submissions and marking became the official method for our Maths Tutorials back in 2017, many students and markers wanted to continue working by hand, because writing formulae on computers can be time consuming. To accommodate this, a) we provided students with a LaTeX-based template that simplified writing mathematics using the keyboard, b) we accepted digitally scanned hand-written submissions for questions that did not merely involve plain-text answers, and c) we purchased a large number of tablets that our markers could borrow and use if they preferred marking with a stylus instead. I should note that, even though scanners are available throughout the campus, students were also able to scan their hand-written work by snapping high definition photos using their phones, which they then converted to PDFs to submit.

Our Department is also working with a custom-made platform called “AnswerBook”, which allows us to convert a paper exam into its electronic equivalent, enabling students to even take it remotely. This is an extremely promising system that we will continue to develop further. In the background, we have been using CATe for our electronic assessments throughout this health crisis, offering the exam questions to the students at specific timeslots and asking them to submit a scanned PDF with their answer after a specified amount of time – as they do for their coursework exercises. These files are then automatically anonymised by a script that sets their filename to each student’s CID, and are then placed on Box – like we did before the personalised eMarking system, enabling the First and Second Markers – as well as the External Examiners – to edit and view all submissions. This online exams process requires collaboration between many staff members of the Department, so I created a group on Microsoft Teams and I added all relevant staff, in order for us to be able to have quick chats whenever required. This actually allows us to run more exams than before at the same time – viz. one per cohort, since there is no need for a physical room. Please feel free to contact me if you would like more information on this process.