Contributing Authors: Marcel Stieber AI6MS, Sterling Mann N0SSC, Nick Booth N1CCK, Lucky225 WA6VPS, Richard Bateman KD7BBC
Amateur radio license exams typically involve local, in-person sessions run by Volunteer Examiners (VEs) to provide supervision and coordination of the FCC exam with respect to the Part 97 regulations. A limited number of remote exam sessions have been done in areas like Alaska, Hawaii, and Antarctica, but all of these still relied on an in-person proctor to be on-site with the examinee. While the COVID-19 shelter in place guidelines have certainly brought this issue to the forefront, the need for testing applicants with limited mobility or access to physical exams has been a longstanding problem for making amateur radio accessible to everyone. There are many anecdotal examples of VE teams and applicants going to great lengths, visiting applicants to provide exams in places such as nursing homes, or applicants traveling hundreds of miles to attend the nearest exam session. The need for fully-remote sessions is now stronger than ever.
Remote and fully-remote exam administration has been permitted by the FCC since the rule change in 2014 explicitly authorized remote exams per FCC Report & Order 14-74. Since that time, both Anchorage ARC VEC (Volunteer-Examiner Coordinator) and ARRL VEC have been offering remote sessions with on-site proctors for extenuating circumstances. Under this rule change, the W5YI VEC recently allowed for limited trials of fully-remote exam administration methods that do not require an on-site proctor. The fully-remote exam administration leverages popular video-communications technologies such as Skype or Zoom to allow for exam sessions to be held in full compliance with both FCC and VEC requirements while maintaining the highest exam integrity and applicant experience.
On March 26th, 2020, the first-ever fully-remote amateur radio exam was held to demonstrate the capabilities of these technologies and align with the needs of the W5YI VEC that authorized the trial. This session resulted in a former ham radio operator, Joseph Talbot, passing his technician exam. The FCC issued him his new call sign KJ7NNU within 24 hours of the exam thanks to digital paperwork and speedy processing by W5YI. This exam was performed using Zoom video conferencing and ExamTools.org, a computer-based testing platform developed in 2014 by Richard Bateman KD7BBC with sponsorship and support from Icom America. ExamTools was originally designed for testing, grading, and exam administration of traditional in-person exam sessions on computers, but lent itself very well to fully-remote testing. Richard led this fully-remote session under the supervision of the National Conference of Volunteer-Examiner Coordinators (NCVEC) Chairman and W5YI-VEC President Larry Pollock, NB5X.
Since this time, several other VE Teams have begun administering fully-remote exams using ExamTools.org along with video conferencing systems. The Greater Los Angeles Amateur Radio Group (GLAARG) VEC started administering fully remote exams the following week, led by GLAARG VEC Team Lead Norm Goodkin K6YXH with the approval of Adrienne Sherwood WA6YEO. GLAARG VEC has administered over 100 individual exams in the first half of April. ARRL VEC also has a limited number of VE Teams running fully remote sessions per Maria Somma AB1FM (ARRL VEC Manager and NCVEC Vice-Chairman).
While many VECs and VE Teams are excited and willing to offer fully-remote exams, the tools and methods are extremely cumbersome and difficult to administer consistently. Challenges include signing and managing all exam paperwork, verifying applicant identification, observing the applicant reliably throughout the exam, actual taking of the exam, exam booklet and question management, and confirming exam payments as required by the VEC. In order to streamline these processes for both fully-remote and in-person computer-based testing, Richard Bateman KD7BBC is enhancing the existing functionality of ExamTools.org to integrate many of these features into the tool and greatly improve the exam experience for all those involved. Since March 2020, a small team of amateur radio enthusiasts has been supporting Richard’s efforts to develop, test, and document the improved tool and the best practices around administering such exams. In the FAQ section of this release, several documents are provided as resources to the VECs and VE Teams for them to modify and incorporate into their own fully-remote exam procedures. The improved ExamTools.org system is currently in beta testing with several VE Teams and will be made available for wider release soon. Stay tuned for the updates on this blog.
Special thanks to the following individuals for their contributions to the fully-remote exam administration process, either those contributing directly or otherwise supporting the efforts:
- Richard Bateman, KD7BBC
- Nick Booth, N1CCK
- Marcel Stieber, AI6MS
- Sterling Mann, N0SSC
- Lucky225, WA6VPS
- Norm Goodkin, K6YXH (and his whole family of VEs: Naomi, Miriam, Michael, Daniel, and Mitchell!)
- Rick Norton, WM6M
- Mikel Turnier, WU1B
- Bob Phinney, K5TEC
- Ted Reimann, W1OG
And a special thanks to W5YI-VEC and the Greater Los Angeles Amateur Radio Group VEC for believing in the technology to enable more people to experience ham radio!
Why do we even offer the fully-remote exam?
Many people wishing to get their amateur radio license have expressed challenges with lack of test session availability, especially in remote areas or areas further away from major cities with regular exam sessions from local radio clubs, or the ability to provide an appropriate proctor for the exam. Additionally, there are individuals who may not be able to easily attend in-person sessions either due to disability or other personal reasons.
With the increase in social distancing requirements in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, many VE Teams have found that they are unable to hold their normal exam sessions and are therefore looking for other ways to continue providing exam sessions. Spurred by the pandemic, there has been a massive increase in both desire and demand from the amateur radio community at large for the VECs to modernize their testing capabilities and improve exam access for everyone. Additionally, General class licensees looking to upgrade to Amateur Extra before the question pool refreshes on July 1st, 2020 will greatly benefit from completing their upgrades fully-remotely.
What does ExamTools.org offer?
ExamTools is being upgraded to now support:
- VE Administrative Portal for exam session management
- VE to applicant assignments to facilitate documentation and exam breakout rooms
- Built-in applicant session registration using the FCC FRN registration tool
- Support for Form 605 completion, signatures, and distribution
- Support for CSCE completion, signatures, distribution, and online verification
- Automatic generation of a unique exam for each applicant and each attempt
- VE triggered start of the exam and exam grading
- VE ability to invalidate an exam
- Exam session manifest is generated at the end of the session for submission to the VEC office
- Immediate digital distribution of documents to applicant and VE team
- All session documentation is retained per VEC and FCC retention requirements and made available for VEC downloading for their local records
ExamTools is not currently providing a turn-key video conferencing solution for fully-remote exams, so it is up to each VEC to determine their accepted video conferencing solution based on their specific needs. The fully-remote exam working group has developed standardized documentation for supporting VECs and VE Teams with these tools.
How much does this cost?
ExamTools is still being offered at no cost to the VECs, VE Teams, and Applicants but does welcome voluntary donations from users if desired. ExamTools is a sister project to HamStudy.org and shares its sponsorship from Icom America and support from Signal Stuff.
How do you maintain exam integrity?
Test integrity is one of the most important parts of any exam run by Volunteer Examiners. The fully-remote exam administration was developed in direct correlation with various existing VEC standards, with cooperation and input from many key stakeholders in the VEC community.
During the session, VEs will first examine the working area around the applicant by having the applicant show the room and working area using his or her webcam, checking that all writing materials and calculators meet the exam requirements. During the entirety of the testing process, VEs will monitor the applicant’s microphone, face, and screen (all of which must remain on throughout the session). Several additional checks and requirements are also in place – see the guidebooks linked below for more information.
The video conferencing solution should allow for VEs to be muted and have their videos turned off to prevent the applicant from getting any clues or hints from the VEs. The applicant’s video and audio will need to be on for the duration of the exam. Based on the feedback from the over 100 fully-remote exams offered so far, the VE Teams have provided extremely positive feedback and expressed their strong confidence in the exam integrity of this format. As opposed to an in-person exam, where dozens of applicants can be spread throughout a large room being loosely monitored as a group, in the fully-remote format a single applicant is being actively watched by 3 VEs individually. This means that the VEs are incredibly aware of the applicant’s activities at all times, to the extent that the VEs can observe the applicant’s eyes as they read and answer each question. This level of detailed observation is unprecedented in the existing exam formats and provides high confidence in the integrity of the fully-remote exam process.
Finally, all session audio, video, and screen-share contents for any fully-remote exam session should be recorded by the VE Team for both session integrity, training, and auditing purposes. This allows the VE teams to review any test anomalies before certifying a CSCE and also allows the VEC to audit any exam for both applicant and VE integrity.
What are the technical requirements for the applicant?
Applicants in a fully-remote exam must provide a quiet room with a clear desk, computer with webcam and microphone, and reliable internet connection for the duration of the exam. The camera must have a clear view of the applicant and the testing area throughout the exam. The applicant’s full computer screen will be shared during the entire exam. Applicants are not allowed to wear headphones or a headset or use a second monitor during the exam. A detailed Applicant Guidebook with additional recommendations has been developed by the working group and is made available to VECs and VE Teams at: https://bit.ly/3er7ozQ
What are the rules for VEs involved in the session?
All VEs for the session must also have computers with a webcam and microphone. At the start of the exam session, all videos are active to allow the VE Team Lead to verify the VEs and applicants during the exam setup. During the exam itself, the VEs will turn off their cameras and microphones to limit any inadvertent distractions or reactions to the applicant’s exam taking. A detailed VE Guidebook with additional recommendation has been developed by the working group and is made available to VECs and VE Teams at: https://bit.ly/3eB09W3
What are the exam sizes and VE ratios supported?
ExamTools supports sessions of any size. While video conferencing solutions readily available at this time support meetings with dozens of participants, they are only viable to support a single testing applicant per session due to challenges in screen sharing, separating, and observing feeds from each applicant in the video conferencing tools tested to date. It is up to each VEC and VE Team to determine the appropriate size and distribution of their VE teams and applicant ratios, depending on the exam session format and specific tools in use. Generally, this means a team of 3 VEs would be able to observe at least one applicant at a time, but possibly up to three applicants with readily-available video conferencing tools using multiple concurrent meetings. Certain VE Teams have started experimenting with Breakout Rooms and multiple sets of 3 VEs to allow concurrent examinations. In these cases, special care must be taken to ensure applicants are isolated from each other during the exam, while allowing the necessary VEs to observe, manage, and communicate with specific applicants. In the future, custom video solutions may be developed by ExamTools to support larger concurrent exam sessions natively.
How can individuals sign up to take an exam?
Check the public exam listings at https://hamstudy.org/sessions and sign up for any available sessions that work for you. Note that a very limited number of VECs and VE Teams are currently offering fully-remote exams, but any of them that are using ExamTools should be listed as a hamstudy.org session. It is very important to read the special instructions provided within the session information prior to signing up, as additional scheduling steps may be required by the VE Team administering that specific session.
How can I sign up to be a VE for these types of sessions?
Please contact your VEC of choice to become a VE. A list of FCC certified VECs is available at https://www.fcc.gov/wireless/bureau-divisions/mobility-division/amateur-radio-service/volunteer-examiner-coordinators. If you are already a VE, please have your VE Team Lead work with your VEC to determine the next steps for your group. If your VEC is not currently set up to administer fully-remote exams but would like to be, please have your VEC contact person email Richard Bateman, KD7BBC at email@example.com. If you are a VE and would like to join the Discord channel for information and discussion around fully-remote exams, please visit: https://discord.gg/CsKrBmA
As of when this release was published, the following VECs have offered official support for using ExamTools for administering in-person and remote exams:
- W5YI-VEC – W5YI has a long history of allowing VE teams to use ExamTools
- GLAARG – GLAARG has been utilizing ExamTools to print the paper exams for their VE teams since 2013 and has been the most active thus far in administering remote exams
- ARRL VEC – Though they have not yet publicly expressed specific support for ExamTools.org there are several ARRL VE teams who are using ExamTools for administering remote exams, with the leading club being the New England Amateur Radio group
Additional Reference and Resources:
Previous Remote Exam References:
- Alaska https://kl7aa.org/vec/remote-testing/
Other references for the fully-remote exam process:
- From Richard Bateman, KD7BBC – https://youtu.be/m_6TW2iOfEQ
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