COVID-19 catalysing assessment transformation: A case of the online open book examination

Keywords: alternative assessment, online open book examinations, COVID-19 pandemic, transformation, Open Distance Education


Under COVID-19 lockdown conditions, the imposition of social distancing and restricted mobility, disrupted the traditional way of assessment in higher education. The closed book examination, conducted under proctored conditions, had to be substituted for the online open book examination (OOBE), posing challenges to both conventional and Open Distance Learning (ODL) institutions. The OOBE became a new experience to lecturers and students. Considering COVID-19 as a potential catalyst for educational transformation, the experiences gained in this format of assessment presents a valuable frame of reference for future learning. The aim is to extract lessons from this innovative learning experience to inform future assessment practices. The study is set in the context of a B.Ed. (Hons) compulsory module, offered at an Open Distance Learning (ODL) institution in South Africa. It is guided by the research question: “what were students’ experiences of their first online, open-book final examination and what are the implications for policy, practice and research?” This is a qualitative study, using as data, student emails on their experiences of the OOBE. The results show that the OOBE is an innovative assessment practice in higher education, in need of deeper understanding and (re)training. We conclude that the OOBE offers transformational opportunities in higher education assessment practices, to replace the traditional closed-book examination. We make recommendations to assist lecturers and students in approaching the OOBE in future.

Author Biographies

S. Meeran, University of South Africa

Dr Safura Meeran


Department of Curriculum and Instructional Studies

College of Education

Univeristy of South Africa

M. N. Davids, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa

Professor Mogamat Noor Davids

Department of Educational Foundations

College of Education

University of South Africa


Biggs, J. 1996. “Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment.” Higher Education 32: 347‒364.

Brightwell, R., J. H. Daniel, and A. Stewart. 2004. “Evaluation: Is an open book examination easier?” Bioscience Education 3 May 2004. (Accessed 5 April 2021).

DBE see Department of Basic Education.

Department of Basic Education. 2018. Educational Statistics – 2016. Department of Basic Education, Pretoria.

Department of Higher Education. 2018. Statistics on Post-School Education and Training in South Africa: 2016. Department of Higher Education, Pretoria.

DHET see Department of Higher Education.

Duraku, Z. H. and L. Hoxha. 2020. “The impact of COVID-19 on education and on the well-being of teachers, parents, and students: Challenges related to remote (online) learning and opportunities for advancing the quality of education.” The_impact_of_COVID-19_on_education_and_on_the_well-being_of_teachers_parents_and_ students_Challenges_related_to_remote_online_learning_and_opportunities_for_advancing_the_quality_of_education. (Accessed 7 April 2020).

Du Preez, H. 2015. “Taxation students’ perceptions of open-book assessment: A follow-up interactive qualitative analysis.” South African Journal of Accounting Research 29(1): 84‒99.

Entwistle, N. J. and A. C. Entwistle. 1991. “Contrasting forms of understanding for degree examination: The student experience and its implications.” Higher Education 22: 205‒227.

Freire, P. 1986. Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, United States of America.

Gupta, P. D. 2021. “Mini Review Corona Vaccine: Nationalism vs cosmopolitanism.” Journal of Cell and Tissue Research 21(1): 7021‒7024. (Accessed 10 April 2021).

Herrington, J. and P. Standen. 2000. “Moving from an instructivist to a constructivist multimedia learning environment.” Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia 40(1/2): 7‒13.

Jansen, J. 2020. “Data or bread? A policy analysis of student experiences of learning under lockdown.” Southern African Review of Education 26(1): 167–181.

Morgan, C. and M. O’Reilly. 1999. Assessing open and distance learners. London: Kogan Page.

Nemer, D. 2015. “From Digital Divide to Digital Inclusion and Beyond: A Positional Review.” The Journal of Community Informatics 11(1). From_Digital_Divide_to_Digital_Inclusion_and_Beyond. (Accessed 10 April 2021).

Nielsen, E. 2020. “The online exam delivery tips: The online open-book examination, Teche.” (Accessed 16 April 2021).

Nouri, A. and S. M. Sajjadi. 2014. “Emancipatory pedagogy in practice: Aims, principles and curriculum orientation.” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 5(2): 76‒87.

Rahimi, A. and M. A. Sajed. 2014. “The interplay between critical pedagogy and critical thinking: Theoretical ties and practicalities.” Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences 136: 41-45.

Shih, Y. H. 2018. “Some critical thinking on Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy and its educational implications.” International Education Studies 11(9): 64‒70.

Soudien, C. 2020. “Systemic shock: How Covid-19 exposes our learning challenges in education.” Southern African Review of Education 26(1): 6–19.

Theophilides, C. and O. Dionysiou. 1996. “The major functions of the open-book examination at the university level: A factor analysis study.” Studies in Educational Evaluation 22(2): 157‒170.

Vieira, F. A., R. M. Vieira, and C. Tenreiro-Vieira. 2018. “Educating for critical thinking in university: The criticality of critical thinking in education and everyday life.” ESSACHESS ‒ Journal for Communication Studies 11(22): 131‒144.

Williams, J. B. 2004. “Creating authentic assessments: A method for the authoring of open book web examinations.” In Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference, ed. R. Atkinson, C. McBeath, D. Jona-Dwyer, and R. Phillips, 934‒937. Perth, 5‒8 December.

Williams, J. B. 2006. “The place of the closed book, invigilated final examination in a knowledge economy.” Educational Media International 43(2): 107‒119.

UNESCO. 2015. SDG-Education 2030 Steering Committee Secretariat. UNESCO, 7, Place de Fontenoy, 75352 Paris France,

UNESCO. 2020. Covid-19 Impact on Education data. COVID-19 Education Disruption and Response. UNESCO, Paris, France.

How to Cite
Meeran, S., and M. N. Davids. 2021. “COVID-19 Catalysing Assessment Transformation: A Case of the Online Open Book Examination”. South African Journal of Higher Education 36 (3), 109-22.
General Articles