April 23, 2020 — 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!