Students, apprentices and trainees keep up momentum with their journalism training thanks to remote exams

Giving students the option to sit NCTJ exams at home has allowed them to “strike while the iron is hot”, says one course leader.

Sam Cooper, who runs training for apprentices and community reporters at Sheffield College, said that his students have been able to keep up the momentum with their learning thanks to the opportunity from the NCTJ to sit remote exams.

He said: "I cannot thank the NCTJ enough for making the remote exams possible.

“We started morning and afternoon shorthand sessions when lockdown was first imposed and our apprentices and community reporters really stepped up.

"The key with shorthand is to strike while the iron is hot and the remote exams have made that possible.”

Sheffield College students have sat essential journalism, media law, court reporting and ethics and regulation exams remotely, experiencing only minor technical issues

In total, 887 remote exams were booked at 21 centres in May thanks to cutting-edge secure proctoring technology and alternative online platforms.

This remote invigilation technology has enabled students and trainees to sit their exams at home while also preserving the integrity of the NCTJ’s qualifications.

The first remote shorthand exams, totalling 252 exams, ran across Thursday, 28 May and Friday, 29 May at 21 centres using a combination of Zoom and the Cirrus exams portal.

McKenzie Williams, a Facebook-funded community reporter studying at Sheffield College, sat the 60wpm shorthand exam from home.

She said: “I have a four-year-old daughter so sitting the exams was quite hard. It was hard to find the time to revise at home and to have peace and quiet to be able to sit the exams due to juggling with child care and deadlines.

“However, the exams were done in a professional way and the instructions were simple and explained clearly to us all which made it all so much easier.

“Being able to sit exams remotely was a positive experience as we have prepared for the exams across months with training provided to us at a high level. If the exams were to be postponed I don't think I would have agreed, as we were all looking forward to completing the exams and earning our qualification.

“I believe being offered to sit the exams remotely was the best thing NCTJ could have done. The overall running of the exams and the system we used to complete them worked well all around.”

Callum Warren, a student on the NCTJ-accredited MA Journalism course at Ulster University, also appreciated the chance to achieve his diploma qualification remotely.

He said: “I think it’s great that the NCTJ has offered this option. It has allowed myself and others a chance to catch up on our courses before we finish in September.

“The Proctorio software was fairly simple to set up and the software operated as expected.

“I’ve completed my first set of exams so that’s a success in my eyes. I’d like to see this system stay as an option - with Proctorio there’s no excuse for everybody not to be able to sit their exams.” 

He added that the only issue he had experienced was he was prevented from having toilet breaks to protect the security of the assessment.

He said: “An exam I sat was normally two hours long but I am allowed extra time due to extenuating circumstances and part of this would have been for a toilet break due to one of my disabilities.

“However, I had to sustain myself for nearly three hours as we had to begin the set-up at 9.30am and the exam wouldn't finish until approximately 12pm.” 

Students at News Associates were the first to experience the Proctorio software when they trialled the journalism for a digital audience exam remotely on 13 May.

Harry Jones, who is studying on the sports media diploma course at News Associates London, said: “I was extremely relieved when I was told that the NCTJ would offer remote exams.

“With shorthand and content-heavy modules such as public affairs, myself and my course mates were extremely worried that we’d struggle to maintain our knowledge of the subjects while we waited to sit the exams, so to be able to sit them on the original dates was really fantastic.

“The speed at which the NCTJ were able to secure and trial the software was unexpected and truly impressive.”

He added that he found the Proctorio checks to be more thorough than expected.

He said: “Although there was added stress that we’d lose internet connection or something would go wrong, it was comforting to know that people wouldn’t be taking advantage of remote exams to achieve grades that they hadn’t necessarily earned.

“A lot of us had issues with Proctorio stating our computers didn’t have enough RAM to proceed, and this seemed to happen randomly, (i.e one day it would work well and on another day it wouldn’t). Some of us would have to restart our computers multiple times to get it to work.

“Personally, right at the start of my digital journalism exam, I was kicked out of the exam. I hadn’t even started writing yet, so I immediately called the invigilator who paused the exam while I got it to work again. After that, all my exams ran smoothly (although I did have to collapse the window of my webcam, as that was hugely distracting!).”

As student representative for his course, Harry was invited to a webinar meeting with the NCTJ to discuss issues and concerns surrounding remote exams, to feed back to his peers.

Graham Moody, course leader at News Associates London, said: “The implementation of remote exams run by the NCTJ has proved a huge success for us. 

“The fact we could offer our trainees the chance to start sitting exams, including shorthand, and get qualified, has really helped lessen their uncertainty around what the future holds and also helped us plan our current courses to a conclusion and plan our future courses. 

“Clear instructions from the NCTJ about how to deliver the exams have helped make the process smooth both from an invigilation point of view and from a candidate's point of view.

“There have been inevitable teething problems - computer issues that didn't come up in testing - but solutions have been found quickly and promptly by the NCTJ. I do hope it is something we can continue to offer trainees in the future.”

More than 1,200 students and apprentices have so far been booked in for exams, including national exam sittings, in June.