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Guidelines for online research degree vivas


Information about the research degree examination process for students and supervisors is available from the Birkbeck Graduate Research School (BGRS). The term ‘online viva’ is used throughout this guidance to refer to research degree oral examinations which are carried out using Microsoft Teams or other appropriate technology. This guidance applies to vivas where one or more of the key participants (examiners and candidate) uses such technology.

Use of online vivas

Candidates may propose that their viva takes place online but must discuss this with their supervisor(s) in advance. All parties participating in the oral examination (candidate and examiners) must be in agreement about the intended format of the viva. Once agreed, the proposed online format for the viva must be specified on the examiner nomination form.

Please note: If an in-person viva is anticipated at the point of examiner nomination but extenuating circumstances arise which lead to proposal of an online viva (e.g. unforeseen travel disruption, restricted mobility or other health-related reasons) supervisors must make a request to the BGRS to change from in-person to an online viva format.

Issues to consider before proposing an online viva

  • The nomination process and examiner requirements remain the same as for in-person vivas. However, an online viva does allow for a much wider pool of examiners to be considered.
  • An online viva may simplify scheduling requirements and reduce or eliminate travel time and costs for examiners and candidates.
  • Candidates may prefer to complete the viva while in a more familiar or comfortable environment.
  • Overseas students may find it possible to carry out the viva without the need to return to the UK.

Potential risks and mitigations

The following information identifies key issues to consider before proposing an online viva. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list but is based on feedback and experience shared by those who have completed an online viva at Birkbeck.

  • RiskAn online viva may reduce the opportunity to pick up on personal or non-verbal communications.
    • MitigationProvided that the online viva is technically well set up some aspects of non-verbal communication will still be possible during an online viva. However, there will be some types of non-verbal communication that may be missing, more difficult to express or harder to interpret.
    • Appendix A (below) provides a list of examples. All participants are advised to be mindful of these issues when considering whether an online viva is appropriate for them.
  • Risk: Problems may arise if any party lacks an appropriate private space to use while the online viva takes place.
    • MitigationIt is essential that a suitable location is available for all participants taking part in an online viva. The supervisor should establish whether a room on the Birkbeck campus may need to be requested to provide an appropriately-resourced location for the online viva.
  • RiskPotential for connectivity problems or technological difficulties.
    • MitigationSoftware and connectivity must be checked in advance by all parties. Where possible, backup connectivity options should be identified in advance (e.g. mobile internet connection). Online vivas must take place using Microsoft Teams to comply with ITS requirements and allow for technical support.
    • All parties should be aware of the potential for audio/video disruption and be willing to repeat themselves as necessary. Participants should indicate if they have not heard the person speaking, or ask for clarification if temporary connectivity issues arise.
    • The Independent Chair  will assess throughout if connectivity or technology issues are impeding the proper conduct of the viva, or risk disadvantaging the candidate. If needed, they can pause the viva while such issues are addressed, and if it is not possible to resolve them, they may halt the viva and notify BGRS that it will need to be rescheduled.
  • RiskMissing social engagement or networking opportunities once the viva has concluded.
    • MitigationSupervisors are asked to consider how arrangements for the end of an online viva can align with practice at the end of an in-person viva. This may involve timetabling of a de-brief session with the candidate and/or an informal opportunity for the candidate and the examiners to interact once the outcome of the viva has been confirmed.
  • RiskSome in-person functions such as a whiteboard or paper are difficult to replace in an online viva.
    • MitigationThe role of in situ diagrams, illustrations or drawings during the viva should be discussed and agreed in advance, to ensure that participants are aware of how to facilitate this in the online setting.

Approval process

All requests for online vivas will be considered on a case-by-case basis by Research Student Sub-Committee (RSSC) at the point of examiner nomination. The supervisor should contact the BGRS in the first instance if they have queries but in all cases:

  • It must be ensured that an online viva is the most appropriate course of action, that the interests of the candidate are taken fully into account, and that the integrity, confidentiality and validity of the examination process is maintained.
  • The supervisor must have evidence of agreement to use an online viva format from the candidate and the examiners and have discussed the benefits and potential difficulties with them before seeking approval.
  • The decision about whether to allow an online viva format will be made by RSSC who are responsible for considering and approving nomination of examiners. No arrangements for a remote viva should be made until the decision is confirmed.

Supervisor responsibilities in advance of the online viva

Once permission for a remote viva has been given, the supervisor is responsible for agreeing a suitable date and time for it to take place. The BGRS should then be informed of this so that the online viva can be arranged - BGRS will normally send the MS Teams invitation and will appoint a suitable Independent Chair.

  • We advise that supervisors allow as much time as possible for a remote viva to be set up - in order to ensure that all the necessary resources are in place.
  • Any time differences between the two locations must be taken into account to ensure the candidate is not disadvantaged by an examination taking place at an inappropriate time, and bearing in mind the availability of the online facilities at each end.
  • The supervisor must ensure that all parties are confident that they have access to the appropriate technology and a reliable connection for the duration of the viva. ITS and BGRS can provide support where required.
  • In order to enable adequate sound and video, use of a webcam, external microphone or speaker should be considered and arranged in advance.
  • A thorough testing of the connection for sound and vision must be conducted before the viva. If there are any doubts about the connection and whether it will last the duration of the viva, the viva should not go ahead. There must be prior agreement between all parties about how to proceed in the case of unexpected technical failure during the viva. This should include arrangements for reconvening the examination if needed.
  • If a Birkbeck location is considered necessary in order to be confident that connection and IT support will be available for the duration of the viva for one or more parties, an appropriate room must be booked in advance.

Examiner responsibilities

Examiners should prepare for the viva by reading BGRS Guidance on the conduct of oral examinations, but in the case of an online viva should note the following additional requirements:

  • The internal and external examiners must consult privately with each other in advance of the viva on the conduct of the examination including: how the pre-viva discussion will be conducted; the form and sequence of questions; who should take the lead at various stages of the viva; what graphics and document viewing facilities, etc might be required. These issues should be addressed in the examiner preliminary reports.
  • Examiners must ensure that if the potential outcome of the viva needs to be discussed in confidence that the candidate departs the meeting while the conversation takes place and has clear instructions of how they will be invited to return (the Independent Chair can co-ordinate this).
  • Examiners are invited to comment on the conduct of the viva  examination in their joint report and should refer explicitly to the use of an online format.
  • In the event of any failure with the technology during the viva, or other concerns regarding the conduct of the online viva, it is the responsibility of the Independent Chair to pause the examination and to decide whether it is possible to continue or whether the viva should be rescheduled. A post-viva report should be made by the Independent Chair, and this should comment on the technical performance of the facilities used in all locations.
  • Having agreed to an online viva the candidate will not be permitted to use this as grounds for appeal, unless the circumstances of technical failure or other unforeseen eventualities beyond the control of the examiners were deemed to have adversely affected the candidate’s performance.

Appendix A: Non-verbal communication issues to consider

  • You may find it difficult to read facial expressions in some lighting situations including bright light sources behind the subject which may mean that facial expressions are obscured. Low internet speed or low-resolution cameras may also reduce the quality of the video. These problems should be avoided by thorough preparation in advance of the viva.
  • The location of the camera may give the impression that a party is not making eye contact while they are looking at their screen.
  • The cropped view during an online viva may not allow a participant to notice the body language of another party. Use of gestures or signs of nervousness may be more difficult to observe based only on a head and shoulders being in view. Care should be taken when using gestures to ensure that they are within the frame of view.
  • If the candidate is experiencing distress, the Independent Chair should consider whether it is necessary to negotiate a brief pause in the oral examination and where needed offer the chance to speak privately with the candidate.