Need help getting ready for finals? Click here to learn more!

Students sitting together and smiling.


Retrospective: Covid-19’s ‘Good Enough’ Era for Online Learning

Welcome to part two of our three-part series on how online grading changed with the pandemic, where we’re at, and what’s coming next.

Beginning with the first wave of lockdowns in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic changed many aspects to how the world works and learns. With a hybrid workflow and a user base across North America, Crowdmark has a unique vantage point on the pandemic’s continuing impact on higher education.  

In the second of this three-part series, we’ll explore the pandemic’s middle phase and how Crowdmark continued to innovate in response to this turbulent period in higher education.

2021 and 2022: Seasons of global burnout

While these changes took place at institutions using Crowdmark, wider society and the education sector  in particular also underwent massive changes. 

Lockdowns returned during Fall 2021 and continued into Winter 2022 in many parts of the world as cases again began to climb with colder temperatures and less outdoor activity.

Burnout also began to feature prominently in news reports and public discourse as workers began to quietly quit or resign from roles that no longer suited their needs. The burnout trend experienced by healthcare workers, first responders, transportation workers, and others directly involved in treating people infected with Covid-19 was mirrored among educators and students. Online fatigue exacerbated the lockdown fever as online meetings filled with blank screens became commonplace occurrences. 

At the same time, broader signs of hope were emerging. The first vaccines to prevent Covid-19 became available in March 2021. While the vaccines themselves were not without controversy, access to them meant more freedom of movement for global populations as 2022 unfolded.

The ‘Good Enough’ Era of Virtual Learning

After March 2020’s initial scramble to support online learning with any tool familiar and available to them, instructors, educators, and students made due with patchwork solutions to close the school year.

“We had an initial two weeks of downtime to try and whirlwind a plan together, which was not nearly enough time,” remembers Laura Pavelka, a chemistry instructor at McGill University. “We faced many shortfalls during that first term when trying to come up with a plan for final assessments.”

Many schools were able to finish off their exam season, whether they moved exams online, or switched to a new format. “One of the biggest challenges was trying to keep strong communication going with my classes while reestablishing any sort of classroom environment—it was really challenging,” says Pavelka.

Virtual classrooms continued through the summer of 2020, which also meant cancelled extracurriculars and none of the typical social rhythms of campus life. Students lost out on the experience of attending classes, meeting friends, and building relationships in person. Experiential learning environments—such as chemistry labs or wind tunnels for physics students—were non-existent.

Taken cumulatively, it’s not surprising that some students began to question the value of paying full tuition fees for what was essentially an online degree during this period.

Changing assessments: Smaller, more frequent assignments over big tests

At the same time, many universities shifted the way assessments were held. With the sudden and unsettling switch to online teaching, final exams that would have been written in person were often replaced by large assignments, such as papers, to preserve academic integrity to the best of the educator’s ability. This change meant that students had to adapt to new formats of assessment, requiring different skills and approaches compared to traditional final exams.

During this period, exams—including midterms and finals—were mostly conducted through the university’s primary learning management system (LMS), which were not fully built out or created as assessment solutions, but passed the “good enough” measure. Exams that were administered by the LMS primarily consisted of multiple-choice questions with immediate grading, or some short answer questions. However, feedback options were limited for these assessments, especially for midterms and finals, which meant students had little to no opportunities to receive feedback. 

“At Crowdmark, we heard a lot of the frustration educators were experiencing with technologies not suited to or designed to facilitate online learning,” says Michelle Caers, Crowdmark’s CEO. “Patchwork situations were common during this period. Proctoring solutions and surveillance tools became very controversial. Security issues also ramped up with phenomena like Zoom bombing—which is when uninvited participants join a meeting and behave inappropriately—started to become a persistent challenge. Zoom fatigue also set in for educators and students, with students turning off their cameras during online class sessions.” 

By Fall 2020, many classes with large enrollments implemented lower-stakes assessments, such as quizzes delivered more frequently throughout the course over the traditional midterm and final model to mitigate cheating on high-stakes exams. 

While these shifts may have alleviated some pressure on the university, for some students, it led to burnout when many of their term courses adopted this approach. Educators also had to adjust to increased marking loads.

Needed: A more sustainable model for online learning 

Overall, the transition to online assessments during the pandemic brought about both challenges and adjustments for university communities as a whole, highlighting the need for flexibility and resilience in adapting to new learning environments.

“In technology terms, people were making do,” says Michelle Caers, Crowdmark’s CEO. “A lot of instructors had tried at least one virtual solution by this point. Most institutions focused on the online learning platforms that they already had, even if they didn’t meet everyone’s needs. This was the ‘good enough’ phase before institutions started to seek out more effective long-term solutions.”

For technology vendors, sales and support calls remained at record highs. 

“The pandemic accelerated the digitization of education that was slowly gaining momentum before the pandemic,” observes Michelle Caers, Crowdmark’s CEO. “People who had resisted or ignored that change had no choice but to try the new tools. We also saw significant changes in how procurement offices made decisions about technology contracts given the situation’s overall urgency.”

The Crowdmark response: Rapid iteration and feature rollout

As described in our first post, we rapidly developed features for the Crowdmark solution in response to the spike in demand and the shifting needs of our users. This iteration wave began in 2020 and continued into 2021 and 2022.

Student experience features:

      • Countdown timer in the bottom of the screen, which can be minimised to avoid added stress when completing an assignment. When less than 15 minutes are left, the timer reminds students to complete their work

      • Improved student analytics to show individual strengths and weaknesses while suggesting future focus areas.

      • Autosave on student submissions


    Features for instructors:

        • Timed assessments to allow students a timed window within a day or week to take an exam, with settings for both synchronous (everyone taking it at the same time) and asynchronous (student completes on their own time) completion.

        • Text response questions, which let students type answers directly in the web browser, support Latex and markdown, insert clickable links, as well as upload attachments of any file type

        • Submission activity log for exams and flexible submission penalties, which can be adjusted per minute, hour, or day for remote assignments.

        • Viewable questions when grading online assessments.

        • Red pen added as an option for inline comments

        • Sortable submission columns to make it easier to tell which students have viewed or submitted assignments, which is particularly helpful for large classes

      In our last post, we’ll cover the pandemic’s endemic phase and its ongoing implications for educators and students in 2024.

      Interested in learning more about Crowdmark? Get in touch for a free trial:

      About Crowdmark

      Crowdmark is the world’s premiere online grading and analytics platform, allowing educators to evaluate student assessments more effectively and securely than ever before. On average, educators experience up to a 75% productivity gain, providing students with prompt and formative feedback. This significantly enriches the learning and teaching experience for students and educators by transforming assessment into a dialogue for improvement.