RSL Awards' Director of Academic, Tim Bennett-Hart, reflects on the impact COVID-19 has had on teaching and learning, and how RSL has evolved to meet the current demands of teachers and students around the world.
A year on from the first UK lockdown seems like a good time to reflect on how the global COVID-19 pandemic has impacted learning, teaching, and assessment. My first reflection is that many areas of the creative arts industries have reacted and adapted well. We are all masters of Zoom, Teams, and Skype and have become adept at helping others configure their video and audio settings. At RSL we were quick to establish our digital exams and we have been overwhelmed by the positive response to new ways of working.
Digital exams are now an established part of what we do and they are here to stay. If there are any positives we can take from the experience of the pandemic it is that students still want to achieve and technology has enabled many of them to do so.
Recorded Video Exams
At the end of March 2020, we were delighted to bring forward our plans to release Recorded Video Examinations. Like many organisations, the pandemic forced us to accelerate our use of technology in a positive way. We have assessed over 20,000 recorded video exams now which has given us some very interesting insights.
- On-demand. Lots of students really like to upload their examination material at a time of their choosing. Our examiners (who are all professional practitioners in their own right) also like the constant stream of candidates to assess. In many instances this can speed up the process of examination without having to wait for the next exam period.
- Accessibility. After a year in and out of lockdowns it feels like geography is less of an issue. We’ve seen Recorded Video Exams from all corners of the world, including countries that we would haven’t been able to send an examiner to. Recorded video exams allow for anyone to enter for an exam from any location, saving people time, but also allowing candidates to be examined from an environment that they feel very comfortable in using their own equipment. Candidates can still apply for reasonable adjustments to the examinations, so our exams are still suitable to anyone to take.
- Nerves. Preparing for any performance can result in a certain amount of nervous energy. At RSL, we had wondered if performing on a recording would make people more, or less nervous for their examination. Feedback from Candidates, Teachers, and Parents, is that preparing for a recorded video exam doesn’t eliminate nervous energy, but it is a different type of experience. It also reflects modern styles of performance – with youtube still being the most popular way for people to listen to music.
- Human Interaction. We found that maintaining human interaction and feedback was an important part of the process. All our recorded video exams include video feedback from the examiner. This is important to ensure candidates know their work is assessed by a real practitioner who is able to understand the nuances of their performance. This has proved a very popular part of our examinations.
- Performances. For many years at RSL Awards we have examined music through either a traditional graded examination format (three pieces, technical exercises, and unseen tests), or a performance certificate format (five pieces). Many organisations assume that recorded video exams will focus on performance pieces, however, our experience is that candidates, teachers, and parents still find enormous value in learning and demonstrating technical skills. We introduced the graded certificate format (three pieces and extended technical exercises) at the start of the pandemic and this has been just as popular as performance certificates.
- Suitability for learners. Along with all the positives, there are learners who have really missed the face to face experience of showing their abilities to an examiner live. I know from talking to examiners that they have also missed seeing so many performances from such a wide variety of people. We know that video exams can’t be the only option for graded exams.
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“One of the main things you should consider is that you are in control” Sarah Page – RSL Awards Examiner
Our conclusion on recorded video exams is that this isn’t a replacement for face to face exams, and our team cannot wait run sessions all across the world. However, recorded video exams do suit a wide number of candidates who have enjoyed the process and we feel that in a ‘new normal’ they are going to remain a crucial part of musical learning.
Live Video Exams
In the summer of 2020 it became very clear that the world wasn’t going to open up quickly. International travel and restrictions on movement meant that we needed a solution to recreate face to face exams. Our operations and examiner team worked tirelessly to harness streaming technology in order to provide Live Video Examination with our examiners being beamed into exam venues all across the world. This has also helped us to understand some of the complexities and requirement to examine remotely.
- Security. Keeping the unseen tests, like sight-reading or aural tests, secure was a major challenge. Using broadcasting software tools, we have been able to securely share these tests, and also solve many of the problems with latency at the same time.
- Equipment. Our initial approach was to look at the complex range of cameras, microphones, and screens to ensure good capture and communication of performances. However, as more and more exams have taken place we are now very confident that the quality of devices (even mobile phones) is high enough for examiners to make really informed decisions.
- Control. It is much more difficult for examiners to lead the examination in the normal way. As our Chief Examiner, Dr Andrew McBirnie explains:
"One of the key differences is the degree of ‘control’ of the exam environment. With live video exams, examiners are ‘there’ in real time but not physically, so everything has to be done by verbal communication and instruction – eg. adjusting an amp, moving a music stand, telling the candidate where to sit etc.
This led us to create specific new training for examiners to ensure they can deliver an excellent experience at a distance.
Just like performance exams, written exams have also faced some serious challenges during the pandemic. This has been a challenge for assessment in all areas and RSL has been leading the way in consultation with UK regulators such as Ofqual. We introduced Remote invigilation for Music Production early in 2020 and followed this with a re-designed Popular Music Theory exam using similar technology as our music production exams. Again, this allows students to take exams in their own environments at much more convenient times.
We’ve been delighted to include interactive digital score editing within our music theory exams, showing how technology can be used to ensure all the critical musical skills are covered.
Along with new modes of examination, we’ve also focused on enhancement of all our examination operations. We have digitised our marking processes to remove the handwritten report forms that were sometimes difficult to read, and we have improved our customer IT systems so that results, report forms, and videos are all available from a single site. This has sped up the release of results in many cases.
The subtle change to our report forms has meant we can present our assessment criteria in a new format, which most candidates agree is easier to read and understand. Our aim is to ensure that the feedback candidates receive is really useful in their learning going forwards. Breaking down grades into their components highlights strengths and weaknesses in performances in a transparent manner, as well as demystifying how examiners make their decisions.
New processes come new challenges, but we remain committed to keeping everyone involved with examinations safe as our first priority. Our safeguarding committee have had a number of factors to consider and each new mode of examination had had a series of procedures produced to ensure safety for all.
Checking and Double Checking
Before releasing any new mode of examination, we check that the results a candidate is likely to get match with our existing expectations. The provides a reliable benchmark on whether there is any advantage to a candidate to be examined in a particular way. 2020 and 2021 so far have been about checking and double checking our methods. With such a large number of examinations now conducted our analysis is extensive and showing that there isn’t a noticeable effect on the mark whether a candidate chooses recorded video or face to face for their exam.
It’s not just examinations that have proved popular in the digital realm. Our Replay interactive sheet music platform remains very popular with teachers and candidates. We’ve added Bass Guitar and Classical Piano to the list of instruments covered.
We have also launched a new way to engage with Rockschool material through our new App – The RSL Learning Platform. This is a free platform for teachers who are part of our teacher registry, and students can subscribe on either a monthly or annual scheme for access to a wide range of our published material. The Learning Platform benefits from real-time analysis of performances powered by MatchMySound and integrates with Zoom to build a powerful experience for teachers and students.
The world has accelerated its journey towards digitisation. For many this opens up new opportunities, and for others it is a source of great frustration. For everyone it opens up a set of new choices that mean approaches can be even more personalised. At RSL, we have been able to embrace the changes, but know keeping all the options open for candidates is right thing to do. There is no certainty or equality of access to digital technology, and we are committed to ensure our materials and examinations should be available to as many people as possible.