Customer Stories

85% first time exam completion rates despite country-wide internet outages

Discover how the University of the Free State navigated COVID-19 and internet issues to deliver secure, proctored exams.


About the University of the Free State

Founded as one of South Africa's pioneering institutions of higher education, the University of the Free State (UFS), has over 30,000 students, across three campuses.

Among the faculties is the esteemed Faculty of Law at UFS, which orchestrates an annual rite of academic passage for its students through a rigorous combination of high-stakes, multiple-choice and written examinations.

We engaged with Henda, the Program Director at UFS’s Faculty of Law, who shared her transformative journey of integrating Synap for their remote exam delivery since 2020. Henda delves into how she used Synap to enhance the security and efficiency of the exams, despite facing numerous hurdles with country-wide internet blackouts and the disruptive impact of COVID-19.

The challenge: Navigating COVID-19 restrictions and low internet bandwidth

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the tradition of face-to-face exams at UFS, prompting the need for a paradigm shift in examination methodologies.

Transitioning to online exams became an imperative, albeit a daunting one. The unique challenges faced by UFS were accentuated by South Africa's susceptibility to frequent internet outages due to 'load shedding'—a controlled measure designed to safeguard the electricity power system from a total blackout. This, compounded by poor network connections and slow internet speeds, presented a formidable obstacle.

In the midst of these challenges, Henda grappled with the pressing question of whether the institution could seamlessly execute online exams with proctoring. The concerns revolved around the reliability of low internet bandwidth environments and the potential impact on the exam's validity, user experience, and security.

In this context, Henda sought an exam platform that could navigate the intricacies of low internet bandwidth scenarios while preserving the integrity and effectiveness of the examination process.

“During our examinations we had stage 4 loadshedding (this means that our national electricity provider cuts the electricity grids across the country for 3 hours at a time 4 times a day). The impact this had on a normal examination and the stress levels of our students were immense. But, this team got every single student through the exam with a professional attitude, support and kindness.”

The solution: Reducing the risk of cheating

To deliver the exams securely, Henda strategically harnessed a suite of anti-cheat methods within Synap, designed to minimise the ability for students to cheat.

A pivotal step involved the disabling of copying and pasting, a tactical move aimed at reducing any attempts by students to share questions or resort to online searches. By restricting the pasting of pre-saved responses in written questions, Henda instilled a commitment to genuine, original work among the students.

The implementation of timed sections introduced an additional layer of security, strategically locking candidates out of each section once the allocated time had elapsed. This not only prevented the unauthorised viewing of previous questions but also acted as a deterrent against any potential leakage of information.

“I was blown away by their professionalism, their ability to accommodate any and all (and even strange) request, and their willingness to assist and to provide an amazing professional service in very stressful conditions.”

Questions and multiple-choice options were randomised within sections. This shuffling ensured that the order in which questions appeared varied, adding an element of unpredictability that further minimised collaborative efforts among students.

Furthermore, Henda embraced the strategy of allocating different variations of the exam to students. This deliberate diversification ensured that each student received a distinct version of the exam, creating a formidable barrier against collaboration and rendering any coordinated attempts to undermine the exam's integrity significantly challenging.

In this way, Synap's multi-faceted anti-cheat measures added several layers of security, instilling confidence in the validity and authenticity of the examination process.


Navigating internet hurdles: Ensuring a seamless exam experience

Henda, coupled with the Synap team, wanted the exam-taking experience to be as stress-free as possible for students who would lose connectivity.

Anticipating the possibility of internet disruptions, the Synap team collaborated closely with UFS to proactively address instances of load shedding. The approach included conducting initial mock tests, not only to familiarise students with the platform but also to enable the Synap team to identify individuals most susceptible to potential internet failures.

A key feature that played a pivotal role in this endeavour was the auto-saving of answers functionality. This ensured that in the event of a student losing internet connectivity, their progress in the exam was automatically saved. Consequently, students could seamlessly resume the exam from where they left off once connectivity was restored, mitigating the impact of interruptions on their overall exam experience.

This approach underscored a commitment to inclusivity, adaptability, and resilience in the face of unpredictable internet dynamics, ensuring that the exam process remained robust and fair for all students.

“I got glowing reviews from students. We all sing the praises of this programme and the kind people behind it.”

Monitoring student activity with low-bandwidth proctoring

Given the limitations imposed by low-internet bandwidth capabilities and the recurrent challenges posed by internet blackouts from load shedding, traditional proctoring methods of continuous video recording were deemed impractical.

In response, Henda pivoted towards the implementation of Synap’s proctoring tool, specifically crafted to operate in low-connectivity environments. This innovative approach significantly reduced the internet bandwidth required compared to continuous video recording.

“It was incredibly easy to use. There are so many useful features, e.g. the recording of the examinations and the clear instructions, made this program ideal for our first online examinations.”

The result was an enhanced experience for students, free from disruptions, while empowering Henda to effectively monitor and oversee student activities throughout the examination process.

This adoption of a low-bandwidth proctoring solution not only tackled technical constraints in the internet landscape but also showcased a forward-thinking approach, leveraging technology to ensure exam integrity and security.

The results: 85% first time completion rate

With Synap, UFS were able to deliver 8 different exams, with multiple variations of each, to over 850 of their law students.

Harnessing the capabilities of Synap, UFS achieved a remarkable feat, successfully administering a total of 8 distinct exams, each offering multiple variations, to over 850 law students.

Henda was thrilled that 85% of students completed their exams on the first attempt, despite the vast majority experiencing connectivity issues.

The Synap team continued working with Henda to ensure the remaining 15% of students, who’s internet connection cut out for the remainder of their exam, were able to complete the rest of their questions at a a later, more opportune time.

These results demonstrate UFS and Synap’s commitment to providing an equitable and successful examination experience for all participants.

“This company made the 2020 academic year, that brought unparalleled challenges in tertiary education, a success.”


Three years on: Elevated exam delivery with more security

Even as the post-pandemic era witnessed the return to physical campuses and lecture halls, UFS has continued its partnership with Synap for the administration of high-stakes exams, marking an impressive milestone of successfully delivering 8,000 exams in the year 2023 alone.

Throughout the year, students at UFS have experienced a seamless exam process, relying on a system that has become familiar and reliable. The sentiment echoed by Henda encapsulates the prevailing satisfaction:

“If I hear of the examination experiences that so many of the other universities had I am so lucky that I found this company. I am never going back to writing a paper-based exam and I will not use another examination provider.”

Synap's proctoring tool, now evolved into the sophisticated Synoptic, has emerged as the quintessential solution for examinations conducted in low-bandwidth environments. Introducing features such as screen recording and a secure lockdown mode, Synoptic further fortifies the examination process, significantly reducing the risk of cheating.

To empower Henda in her oversight role, the system automatically tracks breaches, enabling her to allocate her time strategically by focusing on footage where breaches occur.

In a continuous effort to refine and optimise the monitoring process, the Synap team has introduced regular webcam and laptop screenshots, presenting an efficient, low-bandwidth, and cost-effective alternative to continuous video monitoring. This feature is poised and ready for implementation in UFS's upcoming exams in 2024, underscoring a commitment to innovation and ongoing excellence in exam delivery.

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