Contributed by Nancy Austin, KC1NEK, NCRC
The Newport County (RI) Radio Club offered its first digital VE session a little over a year ago on March 12, 2022. That session was held outside in a parking lot because of the lingering pandemic, and relied on inexpensive Android tablets (with a cramped keypad) connected via a hotspot. It was the team’s first official use of ExamTools and despite multiple practice runs, there remained learning curves.
Fast forward to our most recent VE session given last Saturday April 22, 2023. It was a successful milestone for lessons learned around people, processes and tools implementing digital exams. In particular, the NCRC benefited from a roughly $2000 ARRL Foundation Club Grant that allowed us to now offer applicants easy to use Wi-Fi enabled 64GB/ 10.2″ iPads with folder-style covers, and the option to use stylus pens. The main benefits include much more reliable Wi-Fi connectivity, a large screen, and well-designed consumer user interface. With the “best tool” problem solved, another concern was upskilling VE examiners on the ExamTools.org platform and software. This took time. Over this year, the digital VE session lead, Mike Seil, AA1XQ, has successfully recruited and trained a team of prepared VE examiners who are able to confidently address whatever issues come up.
The timing was right for this all to come together since our data suggests the second quarter is the busiest period for testing VE Session applicants. Indeed, our April session was busy, with more planning to sit for the Technician or an upgrade in June before Field Day. If it turns out that the number of applicants outnumbers our suite of iPads, we hold two sessions back to back.
Our club owes many thanks to Bob Beatty, WB4SON, for totally revising his Technician class content to reflect the new pool of questions; all applicants who sat for the new Technician exam this April were well-prepared and passed. (A number of hams shared that they had decided to try the General exam in April before the test content changes by June.)
What other things help any VE Session go well? In our experience, it is important to be mindful of the need for all test takers to have quiet maintained throughout their VE session. We now have one VE stationed outside the building to both greet and debrief applicants. Folks appreciated being welcomed before the exam and also having their enthusiastic post exam questions answered. Meanwhile, the remaining test takers in the hall could continue to concentrate without distraction. These test takers might include those who choose to sit for all three exams and thus potentially be there for an hour plus. It includes determined folks who want to take the exam again, or those who just need lots of peace and quiet to give the exam their best.
Clubs considering the change to digital VE sessions might plan for a one year process. Getting the volunteer people, processes and tools in place to see this through took teamwork, leadership, and commitment. Many thanks to Bob Beatty, WB4SON, for stepping up to write the ARRL Foundation Club Grant as the Newport County Radio Club embarked on this digital transformation. Our successful ARRL grant allowed us to buy the right tools for the job.
Offering a well-run digital VE session is a transformational opportunity and providing the best user experience for your applicants will matter.