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Retrospective: How Covid-19 Changed Online Grading

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

Crowdmark was founded in 2013 long before the global pandemic upended everything about how the world works and learns. With a hybrid workflow and a user base around the world, we had a unique vantage point on how this global event changed higher education.  

In this three-part series, we’ll explore how Covid-19 changed the way higher education teaches and grades, highlight our team’s unique window on the pandemic and share insights from the data we collected during this period. 

When the world shut down

March 2020 is likely vivid in your memory. Covid-19 cases rose in cities like Wuhan in January and Italy’s Lombardy region in February, leading to global lockdowns by the middle of March

Flights and large gatherings were among the first events to get cancelled, followed by in-person office meetings, followed by . . . nearly everything. Celebrities like Tom Hanks announced they caught corona. Going to the grocery store abruptly became a fraught experience.

At the time, it wasn’t clear how the virus was spreading, only that large numbers of people were getting sick. We now know that Covid-19 is spread through airborne particles exhaled by infected carriers, even before they develop symptoms. And we all learned more than we ever wanted to about social distancing.

A sharp pivot to virtual classes and online assessments

As schools closed around the world, all learning was moved online for better or for worse. It was an immense undertaking. Educators of all stripes quickly had to become experts in running online classrooms and delivering online assessments.

“The Covid-19 pandemic had three distinct phases in education: A scramble to implement solutions with whatever was familiar and available; the make-do era marked with fatigue and burnout; and the current era of strategic thinking about hybrid models,” says Michelle Caers, CEO of Crowdmark. “Before the pandemic, virtual learning and digital grading platforms were present in education. Early adopters were proficient and extolled the benefits, but there was no wholescale reason for their institutions to disrupt in-person learning until the 2020 March lockdowns.” 

Digital adoption was rapid and intense. Understandably, finishing the term was a big priority for many educators since exams were looming and students were concerned about completing their terms or degrees.

Crowdmark itself has a long culture of remote work. “We’ve always had a remote-first culture,” says Caers. “At the start of Covid, we had six people and a few shared desks in a co-working space in downtown Toronto. Ahead of the lockdown, the bigger tech companies located near us announced they were sending their workers home. Health Canada hadn’t yet made a formal announcement, but I decided it was best if everyone stayed home and stayed safe.” She pauses. “People were expecting it to be only a couple of weeks”.

When lockdowns were announced, institutions large and small moved their classrooms online virtually overnight. Some schools opted to cancel exams while others made do with their existing tools. 

Crowdmark’s team fielded many support calls from existing users and new institutions urgently looking for help. In the earliest days, users adopted Crowdmark’s homework workflow as it existed to meet their urgent virtual exam needs. 

Other instructors opted to restructure their syllabi, taking high-stakes exams of 70 percent or more off the table while making smaller tests or assignments available. A long time Crowdmark user and Statistics professor from York University generally administered multiple smaller tests during COVID to “reduce her student incentive to cheat on any one assignment” given the lower stakes while also reducing performance pressure.

Recognizing the pressures educators were under, Crowdmark offered free access to the platform and daily training sessions until May 31, 2020. 

“Supporting our community of educators during challenging times has always been our top priority,” says Caers. “Providing free access helped them to ensure learning continuity while also helping to keep students healthy and safe. It was an easy decision, and we saw many other software companies make similar offers shortly thereafter. People were doing their best to help however they could.”

A truly global user base in eight intense weeks

“Crowdmark’s functionality allowed marking teams to make flexible choices, but some remained committed to the large exam format,” says Jamie Gilgin, development lead. “We realized our existing workflow wouldn’t support timed exams and pivoted all our development efforts to build out a synchronous and asynchronous exam workflow instead, adding new features as fast as we could build and test them.” 

Crowdmark also doubled its support team from mid-March to mid-May in 2020. “The volume of support requests meant we were still working 14 hours a day, seven days a week,” Caers remembers. “Even when we ramped up our team.” 

One early decision for the Crowdmark team to navigate were requests to implement online proctoring tools for exams. “We made a conscious decision not to support surveillance tools that monitor what students were doing in real time. These tools were fraught with equity and privacy issues along with questionable effectiveness. They exacerbated an already high stress situation for students ,” says Caers. “Our culture focuses on trusting people, respecting their integrity, and delivering the best possible experience.

“Rather than support online surveillance tools, we opted to help our users find ways to test students’ analytical thinking while showing their work,” Caers explains. “It’s not impossible to cheat while doing that kind of assessment, but it requires a lot more effort.”

At the peak of 2020’s spring exam period, Crowdmark fielded over 50,000 requests per minute from time zones around the world. “People forget that when students were sent home, they returned to places all over the world,” says Caers. “Responding to their infrastructure needs while supporting their instructors was a huge but exciting challenge for our team.”

In part two of the series, we’ll cover the rapid iterations Crowdmark’s system underwent during Covid-19 and the middle phase of online learning adoption during the pandemic.

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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.