Leaving aside that the term viva is a bit of a funny one (the important bit of viva voce is missed out; I’m sure it should be pronounced v-eee-va and not v-eye-va; there was a now-considered-hilarious 1970s car of the same name) this oral examination is a key part of the postgraduate research assessment process. In the UK at least, it remains essentially the only way in which the work of a PGR student is examined.
To head off on a brief tangent, this is not the case in Australia or the United States. In the former, at least in my direct experience, three external examiners receive copies of the final thesis and provide detailed written comments which go to a panel which gathers all the opinions and comes to a final verdict.
Students in the US defend their work but this part of the process can be something of a formality and it’s perhaps not quite the same as the traditional see-the-whites-of-their-eyes all-or-nothing high adrenaline British method.
Anyway, the approach I have used myself over the years as an examiner is to read through the weighty tome and make various comments in a separate word processing file and perhaps add various Post-It notes into the thesis to keep track of the key pages. This method comes with a large administrative overhead. For example, you are obliged to type something like ‘Change the term ‘staining of the corneal epithelium’ to ‘corneal epithelial staining’…’ in your list of recommend amendments. Repeat. Many times. It’s burdensome and it does my head in, as the kids say.
Last week I had the opportunity to run the whole process on my iPad. Theses are now routinely provided to examiners as PDF files, and so it was a simple process of using a PDF annotation app (I’m currently using iAnnotate but there are lots available) to work through the report, making edits, adding comments and so on. It was a breeze to work through these during the viva because the program has a button which allows you to advance sequentially through the edits. Extra thoughts and ideas were noted as we discussed the work and it all ended up added into the PDF.
At the conclusion of the process, the student needs to see the examiner comments and again, it was trivial to email a copy of the comments and edits. In fact, the automated email included the annotated PDF and a separate list of each change. This is much better for the examiners, but also an improved situation for the student who receives a more informative list of changes more rapidly.