By Titus Green
I read the extensive Proctoring the Online TOEFL guide issued by the Director of the English Program which was a recipe for psychological indigestion. It was a sixty step sequence of orders telling us how to set up the ZOOM TOEFL exam meeting, how to e-mail the participants, how to admit them into the room, when to mute them, when not to mute them, what rules to read to them, how to communicate with the test takers and what messages we needed to relate to our hall monitors, at what point in proceedings, through the infernal Whatsapp social media application. Not content with browbeating us with these commands he sent one PDF after another of tedious, time-consuming tweaks we needed to make to the ZOOM settings so that this futile exercise in judging English literacy could take place.
To prepare to manage the exam myself, I asked my colleague Phillip’s permission to sit in on his test telling him I would merely observe as unobtrusively as possible. A fly on the wall ready to witness the vignette of chaos, confusion and incompetence that was the university’s signature.
I entered as students were ringing the digital doorbell of the ZOOM session. Grasping the mouse in his delicate fingers, Phillip guided the cursor gingerly towards the green ADMIT button like a fatigued soldier contemplating an anti-personnel mine. His grimace suggested he would accept the detonation stoically when it came because it would be inevitable. He chewed his bottom lip and furrowed his brow.
“Hello Khaled. Khaled? Can you hear me?”
Phillip’s voice was already tremulous.
Khaled’s voice, having jettisoned a few binary packets in the transfer, boomed grotesquely through the microphone.
“There is problem with ETS browser. TOEFL not work.”
The declining quality of the call accentuated the harshness in Khaled’s voice. He sounded disorientated and desperate and the exam had not even begun.
“I can’t see you Khaled. Can you see me? You need to turn on your camera,” said Phillip, doing his best to steer the exam in the direction of success. He reminded me of an air-traffic controller tasked with guiding in a fleet of planes with failing engines and fuselages coming apart. Before this trial run of administering ETS’ Test of English as a Foreign Language through a customized online platform, the students had been sent several chapters on getting their computers ready for the test. For this collection of the university’s weakest and most bone-idle, lard-arsed illiterates who could barely read through the gameplay instructions on their Xbox console screens, sending them convoluted reams of imperatives was counterproductive. The students were supposed to have carried out a number of tests to make sure their computer operating systems were compliant. They had also been told to install ZOOM and attend a pre-exam practice session with the proctor.
“Khaled? Are you still there?” asked Phillip anxiously. The black square on the screen representing Khaled-Al Qahtani’s involvement in the exam displayed a has left the room sign.
Already, I thought. I was certain of the tsunami of disaster heading for the university’s prospects of ever holding this online English test successfully. A gold-medal shambles was inevitable. An extinction event.
The chime of the Zoom’s digital doorbell went again, with a sense of impatience that penetrated the interface’s unemotional operations. The Saudi craving for immediate gratification was so strong it could break out of ZOOM waiting rooms. Another chime sounded, then another. I imagined a line of quarrelsome young men, whose energy for throwing entitlement around was undiminished by the fasting of Ramadan, jostling to get ahead of each other in the URL’s digital boarding tunnel and channelling every molecule of their binary wasta, or influence, to get to the front of the queue.
“Hello. Mohammed,” said Phillip nervously.
A shaggy-haired, sallow-faced individual materialised with a nicely decorated room in the background. A bookcase behind Mohammed had a few lonely English textbooks and what looked like a comprehensive catalogue of PlayStation games.
“Can you turn on your microphone Mohammed?” Phillip repeated the request but nothing vocal came from Mohammed’s end. The student stared vacantly into the camera and then glanced downwards, perhaps at his keyboard or at a smartphone concealed for cheating.
“I can’t hear you Mohammed. Can you hear me?” Phillip sighed. It was going to be another beastly day for Phillip, who was already suffering from the plumbing catastrophe in his apartment in the Old Shabab staff accommodation block. The test proctors were supposed to send a Whatsapp message to the hall monitors when their students had been registered and were ready to start the exam.
He typed a message to Mohammed through the app’s chat feature and Mohammed started to speak from Riyadh, his lips voicing silent syllables of distress.
“Can’t he hear me? I don’t know what’s wrong,” said Phillip wearily. If it wasn’t enough to come back to his apartment in the evenings to be greeted by stagnant lakes of sewage in the hallway, with the stench confined and the heat encouraging the bacteria to do its worst. He was also obliged to swallow this double dose of stress from the department’s pharmacy of chaos.
On the screen, in his participant’s window, a disgruntled Mohammed was shaking his head with his face contorted into a mask of vexation. Phillip’s host window was open next to his, broadcasting mercilessly his growing apprehension. His bald head, haggard features and wire-framed spectacles gave the impression of a kidnapped intellectual imprisoned and tortured by the technology of the twenty-first century. They both looked oppressed and contained in their little virtual communication cubicles in the program’s Gallery View. Prisoners of technocracy sentenced to participation in this abysmal exercise. Victims of COVID19’s global disruption timetable and the university president’s enthusiasm for the migration to online teaching and testing.
“Have you unmuted him? Or maybe you’ve muted yourself?” I suggested.
“Ah, thanks. I hadn’t thought of that,” he replied guiltily while perhaps imagining that Ishmael the abrupt and overbearing Program Director was present next to us watching this wretched start to the exam and preparing to intervene with admonitions.
He glanced at the participant list in the side-bar menu to the right of his screen. The inactive blue ‘mute’ button showed that Mohammed’s ability to be heard was not deprived.
“Where’s the mute button for ourselves again?” Phillip asked with an extra increment of desperation. ETS, the owner of the exam, had released the remote test proctor’s procedure two days previously. As for how-to-use Zoom tutorials for English instructors who rarely used such intricately featured applications, they were forgotten in the rush for readiness.
I told him it was in the bottom left corner. With dismay, he noticed his microscopic grey microphone icon was struck through with a diagonal red line.
“No wonder he was getting annoyed with me.”
He asked Mohammed if he could hear and the student nodded. When asked if he had received the chat message sent to him the head nodding reverted to shaking along with the return of the bewildered expression. Phillip asked him to write a short note explaining why he could not see the chat message. With a huff Mohammed rose, presumably to find writing materials.
Ding Dong. Ding Dong. Ding Dong. The knocking at the virtual door continued. The gladiators of English demanded admittance into this colosseum of doom, with their poor skills, uncooperative computers and feeble WIFI connections guaranteeing their deaths. We who are about to fail, have our operating system crash or be caught cheating salute you.
Phillip moved the cursor to perform its irksome task. The screen threw up a ‘joining in progress’ message superimposed on the emerging black participant window. A pudgy, triple chinned young man who looked as though he’d been feasting on nothing but McDonalds for his iftar repasts appeared.
“Hello doctor. How are you?” said Tariq affably. He was wearing a white thobe whose collar could barely contain the copious fat trunk of his neck. At least his camera and microphone are working, I thought. A good start.
Phillip asked to see his university ID and then asked Tariq if he had performed the System Check and the Test Delivery Check. Tariq, grinning awkwardly as though he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, or in his case, re-swiping the McDonald’s delivery app, said that he hadn’t. Phillip received the confession warily and glanced at his watch. The test was due to start in seven minutes and he was still bogged down in this preliminary administration and its mushrooming problems.
“Have you installed the ETS secure browser?” he asked, inwardly pleading for the affirmative from his client.
Tariq’s vast mouth opened and peeled back into a fulsome grin and his eyes expressed a sense of amused bewilderment.
“Again. The question.”
“Did you download the browser onto your computer?” said Phillip, paraphrasing with mild exasperation. These ‘Level 3’ students were supposed to have English proficiency equal to the Common European Frame of Reference’s B2 Upper Intermediate level.
“No doctor. I forgot,” said Tariq nonchalantly as if it was a trivial issue. Phillip glanced at me mournfully, as if to ask what sins he’d committed in a previous life to be contractually obliged to be administering a high stakes language test with a gold standard world reputation in such a way and with students of such calibre. He slumped back into his chair and looked pensively at his screen. Mohammed was back in his window in the upper-left corner of the monitor. He held up a scribbled note close to his computer’s camera lens which Phillip had to crane forward to read. It was scrawled in a slanting, large juvenile style script combining upper and lower-case letters.
I NOT no how using chaT for zom.
Phillip groaned. An auditory statement of surrender to a world that had done nothing but bombard him with slings and arrows of diabolical fortune worthy of Shakespearean expression for the past year. A belligerent alcoholic for an office mate. His bookshop in the UK empty of customers and bleeding money profusely. Rent and debts accumulating. Conflict with the business partner. Rising sewage from his bathroom drain every time he flushed his lavatory reaching a depth of inches and Mr. Al-Ghamdi, the apathetic and unhelpful Head of Faculty Housing refusing to move him until he received a ‘maintenance report’. I admired his lack of self-pity and his commentary on life tried to be naively optimistic. Well, I’ve got a job at least he’d say.
“If he hasn’t got the browser, he can’t take the test can he?” he asked referring to Tariq who waited in his window looking drowsy and at ease with his place in the world. What was he dreaming of? Food? Sleep? World of Tanks Gameplay?
“No. Not according to the guidance notes,” I replied. The notes had made the physics of the situation explicit to students: no browser download equalled no test.
“I just don’t understand these people,” said Phillip with a shake of the head.
“Phillip, the mike’s still on remember,” I said. How many of our colleagues were cussing the universe and cursing the stone-headed obtuseness of our Saudi deans for insisting on holding this test without realising mikes were live and that the application was recording all profanity for prosperity? Was ‘the management’ going to be petty enough to trawl through the footage of each exam to find insults and disrespectful remarks voiced in the heat of stress? Anything was possible. I thought of Donald, our conniving Irish gossip colleague more competitively obsessed with his teacher evaluation ratings than any other member of staff, unleashing bursts of the ‘f’ word as he struggled with similar difficulties in his office. He was a declared technophobe; he must have been going berserk at that moment as the technology and people combined to induce a stroke.
With unresolved problems, Phillip continued to admit students into this studio of tomfoolery.
“Mister! Walaah! I swear I try to attend the practice session. Internet problem in Jubail,” said an agitated student frantically running his hands through his hair.
“Please mister. The browser do not opening. I worrying about failing. Help me please,” he implored with clasped hands.
“OK Mansour. Just calm down. I need to see your ID first. Then I’ll ask you about the system check.” Phillip’s grasp of the situation was like that of an exhausted free climber whose grip on the only jagged protrusion of rock was weakening. Despite the gate-keeping function of Zoom’s waiting room feature, students were somehow bypassing this control and now piling into the room, their sullen profiles appearing in their allocated virtual cubicles and joining the unmuted Mohammed shaking his illiterate sign and calling for solutions and Tariq serene in his helplessness. The dialogue became quickfire and Phillip’s actions chaotic.
“I do not understanding the browser,” said one with a sequence of adroit hand gestures comprehensible only to Gulf Arabs.
“Can I go to the toilet?” asked another, a shady looking chancer in sunglasses.
“I have a question,” said a slender, pale student whose demeanor broadcasted furtive intentions. Probably a serial course flunker handed last chance saloon notices facing expulsion from the college. I watched his eyes shift repeatedly to his right at what was most likely a second monitor he’d installed for cheating purposes. This was one of the little stunts we were told to look out when invigilating these academic bandits, when it was actually possible to get the test started.
“Can we take notes in the listening section of the test?” he asked, as if he didn’t know already. A smokescreen question motivated by subterfuge. It had Phillip scrambling. First he said no, perhaps in panic. I scanned the list of points for Proctoring the Online TOEFL Exam and number 44 stated that they could. I brought this to his attention and Phillip clarified the rules and became more flustered by the demands of the test takers.
“Mohammed you need to click on participants to open the chat. Tariq? Are you downloading the browser? Mansour, I’m not sure what’s wrong with the browser but it might be OK so just wait and I’ll get somebody to help with that. Tawfiq, what was that? Did you say the browser doesn’t work? Hold on—” He struggled with the Zoom controls like a USS Enterprise crew member during a bridge emergency in Star Trek.
“Where’s the unmute button again?” Ding Dong
Khaled Alqahtani rematerialized, agitated and obstreperous.
“This is very confuse! Bad computer make problem. Help me doctor!”
“Yes, I agree,” chimed in the suspicious student seeking leverage from the situation. “We should have another time to do the test.”
Phillip needed to grab the lapels of this test process and wrestle it to the ground and submission soon because the test’s official test start time was just two minutes away and the registration wasn’t yet complete.
“Shall I go and get Brian?” I asked.
“Yes, I think I need him here,” he replied. Brian had been appointed the faculty’s tech trouble-shooter since the inception of online teaching two months previously. He was a friendly and unflappable young man who came from the rural American South. His office was located just down the corridor. He thought on software’s wavelength and could tame most of its bad behaviour with patient coaxing and explorations of its anatomy. He was positive about everything except the water fountain close to his office door that emitted a pungently unpleasant smell that was holding the corridor hostage with its festering, faecal reek. He’d explained to me, with his enviable knowledge of everything technical delivered in a quaint southern drawl, that the fact that the fountain’s trap wasn’t being opened frequently enough meant that the sewage pipe gasses from the connected toilet plumbing accumulated.
“I’ll go and get him. Hold the fort,” I said, and I left his office in search of Brian’s IT International Rescue skills. He had posted a just knock I’m inside notice on his door because he had a kettle and was having naughty infidel coffee breaks during fasting hours and the door kept this transgression out of sight. Since it was a test day involving multiple invigilators both physically inside Building 58 and suffering this nonsense on their home computers, I suspected Brian was going to be in maximum demand. I passed Michael’s office. His office door was open, and it was obvious that he was experiencing similar tribulations.
“Remember, if you’re using a Mac for the test you can’t use Safari! This was explained in the notes!” He hollered the reminder at the screen with weariness and gave me a rueful heads-up look as I passed. I found Brian in Donald’s office up on the second floor preventing similar catastrophes in waiting as the stocky little Irishman became loud and animated in conveying his unease.
“It’s much simpler in a normal TOEFL exam! None of this malarkey with ZOOM. One of them can’t even connect—”
Somehow, I manage to move Brian out of the way of the verbal blizzard of Donald’s impending diatribe and direct him to Phillip’s room. In there, he guided mystified Mohammed to the use of the chat feature and told Tariq he wouldn’t be able to take the test. He reminded the other students that they were allowed to re-start their computers in the event of system crashes. They could leave the ZOOM session in the event of problems, but only for a maximum of ten minutes. I left Phillip when the test finally started as I seemed to be a jinx, an unlucky presence dragging bad luck around. I went into my office determined not to watch any more YouTube tutorials on how to achieve ZOOM mastery delivered by chipper, camera-happy millennial technologists punctuated by stay home, stay safe messages and advertisements from declining celebrities selling their time in Masterclass packages. I sat in my stifling office and took a few guarded swigs of water. I enjoyed a few minutes of mesmerizing jazz on YouTube and my mind took me in an air-conditioned limousine to Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport, the only airport operating flights out of the kingdom, and deposited me at a VIP departure departures area where staff took care of my immigration and customs formalities and I waited in a cool private room. I boarded my own personal Lear jet and sipped a glass of iced cider as it taxied on the Saudi runway, waiting to carry me to saner surroundings.
Thirty minutes later I heard commotion in the corridor and voices raised. Things were going wrong, in multiple places. I went into Phillip’s office and saw him in crisis management mode shaking his head at the hopelessness of it all. Their dedicated TEOFL browsers were freezing, crashing and conspiring in other ways to provide dreadful ‘test taker experiences’ and multiple grounds to launch appeals for re-tests. Test takers waved frantically at him from their windows, pleading to be saved like the doomed inhabitants of a burning high-rise block of technological yet inflammable extravagance. I saw the shifty student, unfazed by system problems, being fed answers by his double-screen and Tariq, inexplicably still in the session, reclining in his chair with closed eyes. Phillip keyed texts frantically into WhatsApp, as per the rules, to update the hall monitors and management, allegedly overseeing the entire test session, in which students’ exams were imploding en masse.
“Shall I get Brian?” I offered.