Manchester Metropolitan University is one of the largest UK post-92 institutions with over 33,000 students across all levels and modes and over 2,700 academic staff members. Three MMU colleagues have gained accreditation as ‘developers’ able to facilitate the Professional Development for External Examiners course (PDC). Two blended courses scheduled for March and June 2020, could not go ahead due to campus closure as a result of Covid-19. However, because there was a staff member on hand who had been involved in supporting the Advance HE online provision, the institution was in a position (with permission), to offer an online course to staff as a substitute. Colleagues who had already booked onto the blended courses were offered an online place, and additional places were opened to other takers. In terms of workload, institutional delivery of the PDC has been shared between staff in Academic Quality and Standards and the University Teaching Academy. Having both teams represented appears to have worked well and possibly helped to maximise the benefits for operations whilst also ensuring credibility and embedding as part of the wider professional development offer.
Taking all institutional courses together so far, 122 staff members have completed PDC courses delivered at the institution, including 36 who completed the online version. Well over half (60%) had no experience of external examining when they started the course. In feedback, overall three-quarters of the course participants agreed or strongly agreed that the course had given them some ideas for changes institutionally that they will follow-up on in the future. In terms of assessment literacy, the organisers have identified opportunities to work within teams and with incoming external examiners to develop more consistent approaches to marking and moderation. Insights from the PDC have helped colleagues with responsibility for external examining processes to conceptualise developments to internal practices and procedures for external examining. Changes were made to simplify and improve the institutional flow of information that comes from external examiner reporting, and raise its profile, which has helped to make the external examining system more meaningful and impactful for university processes. Approaches to internal and external moderation are currently in development, drawing on ideas in the PDC towards calibration of standards. Consideration of whether applicants have completed the PDC is now part of a first sift of candidates for incoming external examining positions.
The case study research highlights the role the PDC can play in supporting institutional practices not only in terms of practices for working with and learning from external examiners, but also in relation to helping institutions to identify incoming examiners who are most likely to support this goal. Based on the MMU experience, it is suggested that, given a necessary level of commitment and enthusiasm from developer colleagues, the PDC is transferable to other general higher education providers who have the advantage of size and diversity of subject interests. Running courses more frequently in future could allow for greater management of the disciplines represented in the cohorts, and an issue for ongoing regular delivery will be to extend the numbers of developers in order to make sure delivery of the course is sustainable.