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Lessons learned from online bar exam technology fail

Tuesday, August 31, 2021 @ 10:31 AM | By Colette Self

Colette Self %>
Colette Self
I had a nightmare a few weeks before writing the barrister exam. I was sitting at my computer unable to connect with my virtual proctor, watching the minutes go by. 10:29 a.m. 10:30 a.m. 10:31 a.m. My exam time came and went.

I’ve heard that dreams can prepare you for reality. This might be true if you’re prone to overthinking like I am. I imagined all of the things that could go wrong during my remote exam, starting with the obvious. My technology could fail, including my laptop, Internet connection and power source. I would hope for a clear, sunny day to mitigate some of the risk. But wait. When it’s sunny, the neighbours bring out their lawn mowers and weedwhackers. They send their kids outside to play. Construction projects proceed forward and joggers give my dog a reason to bark.

I did eventually come to my senses, choosing to focus on what I could control and leaving the weather forecast aside. I acquired a backup power source, increased my Internet speed, and did practice test questions with intervening noise from the neighbourhood. Closer to the day of my exam, I ran through a simulation with a proctor who assessed my technology and confirmed that my laptop and Internet connection met the requirements. I purchased food that I could easily consume during the exam break, and I even replaced the light in my desk lamp. I had prepared for the barrister exam like it was the apocalypse.

Just as I was feeling a sense of comfort, my perfectly curated environment began to unravel. I was writing an online practice test during the week of my Friday exam when the buffering began. Not only was the Internet out, but all of my services were down. Technical support arrived 24 hours later. It’s best not to ask me about those 24 hours.

On the upside, my exam was still a couple of days away and the bad thing had already happened. Sure, I wasn’t able to complete my online practice tests, and yes, I endured a bit of stress, but the problem was fixed. I told myself that it’s always safest to fly after a crash.

So there I was on Friday, ready to fly. I logged onto the website and connected with a proctor. This was already going better than my dream, I thought. Then a message came through from the proctor, stating: “Hi Colette, your laptop requires an operating system upgrade to take this exam.”

How had this happened? Well, I can’t speak for the proctor who performed my technology assessment, but maybe I got distracted imagining record-breaking thunderstorms and worrying about what my neighbours might get up to during my exam.

I started the operating system upgrade. Fifty-six minutes remaining. My proctor confirmed that regardless of how long it took, I would get my full time. I had a flashback to something I had read about their services: “Proctors available 24/7.” This wasn’t a matter of if I would get my time, but when.

I watched the screen as the time remaining jumped back and forth. Forty-six minutes remaining. Forty-eight minutes remaining. Thirty-five minutes remaining. Forty-six minutes remaining. This continued until the number reached zero and conveniently froze.

I checked in with my proctor whose only advice was to try it again. Fifty-six minutes remaining. This cycle repeated at least once more until three hours had gone by and I began to feel like the time estimator was mocking me.

While I waited, I paced back-and-forth outside, burning off the adrenaline. I took a moment to scan the neighbourhood. No thunderstorms. No lawn mowers or weedwhackers. Not even a single child. Just one woman waiting for her operating system upgrade to finish.

As it turned out, my laptop didn’t have enough space to install the upgrade. Four point five hours after sitting down to write my exam, having deleted the entire contents of my undergraduate education, I was ready to begin. The hours that followed were mentally taxing and unavoidably impacted by the events leading up to them, but I am happy to report that in the end, I did pass.

I have since reflected on this experience, especially while engaging in discussions about an increasingly virtual future. I have thought about everything from online exams to remote court appearances to Zoom doctors. While there are many advantages to expanding services onto virtual platforms, the stress of controlling your home environment cannot be understated. Being your own tech support can also be a challenge. In my case, both of these factors caused me to overlook a major requirement: the version of the operating system that would allow me to take my exam. At least when it comes to test taking, I’d go back to an unairconditioned gymnasium any day.

I have a feeling that I’m not the only one with a 2021 bar exam anecdote that is more entertaining now than it was in June. I’m also certain that many of you lawyers out there have a story to tell about your remote work.

So, did your nightmares prepare you? I’m not sure that mine did.

Colette Self graduated from Queens Law and is currently doing her articles. You can reach her at 

Illustration by Chris Yates/Law360

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