Migration and transformation: a sociomaterial analysis of practitioners’ experiences with online exams

  • Stuart Allan Director of Online Learning, Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland
Keywords: assessment, digital exams, online assessment, online exams, sociomateriality


Many institutions are making the move from pen and paper to online examinations, but the literature offers relatively few critical reflections on the ramifications of such a shift. This research presents evidence of the ways in which the social and human practices of online exams are deeply entangled with the material and technological, and cautions against the reinscribing of essentialist or instrumentalist assumptions about technology in assessment practices. Through semi-structured interviews with eight practitioners in Norway, the Netherlands, the UK and Ireland, it analyses the impact, dimensions and limitations of two main discourses: migration, whereby exam technologies are assumed to be neutral instruments used independently by humans to realise their preordained intentions; and transformation, whereby the essential and inalienable qualities of technologies can be released to ‘transform’ or ‘enhance’ assessment. Its findings indicate that: (1) exam technologies are neither inherently neutral nor essentially transformational; (2) implementation projects underpinned by the migration discourse can be much more complex and resource-intensive than anticipated; and (3) ‘transformative’ change may be value-laden and driven by assumptions. Given the complex and entangled nature of online exams, practitioners are encouraged to think creatively about how assessment strategies align with educational goals, to consider the limitations of current discourses and to analyse critically the relational and performative roles of digital technologies.


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1 ‘Online exams’ are understood here as high-stakes summative assessment events, mediated by digital technologies, often taking place in a defined place or time and under secure conditions (e.g. invigilation, restrictions on access to course materials, notes or communication).

2 Myyry and Joutsenvirta (2015) acknowledged that ‘the specific context and tradition of university examinations in Finland’ (p. 129) might have influenced their results.
How to Cite
Allan, S. (2020). Migration and transformation: a sociomaterial analysis of practitioners’ experiences with online exams. Research in Learning Technology, 28. https://doi.org/10.25304/rlt.v28.2279
Original Research Articles