Covid-19: Online exams can be conducted securely

As universities move to distance learning, there are doubts about whether online exams can be conducted securely and with integrity. Doubts abound and are fuelled by the basic logic that if students can cheat in the presence of invigilators in face-to-face exams, how about online when no one is watching?
Online Exam

Truth is, when the right online assessment software is used, both software and remote invigilators are watching. And they are watching with eagle eyes and can see much more detail than an invigilator in a face-to-face environment can because of remote monitoring capabilities of the software. In fact, good online exam systems are secure and can be trusted because they deploy an array of advanced technologies to minimise cheating.

According to research, cheating rates during online and face-to-face exams are about the same. A study conducted by Marshall University shows that 32.1% of respondents admitted to cheating in a face-to-face environment, while 32.7% admitted to cheating in an online environment.

The difference between these two numbers is insignificant. Many other studies show similar results. So, what is not generally known, and what this article intends to make known, is that with the right tool, online exams can be conducted securely and with integrity. 

How exams can be done

Exams can be conducted securely and with integrity when a good learning management system (LMS) is used.

The best LMSs use advanced technology and psychology to reduce cheating. In addition to other cheating countermeasures, these systems address two of the major concerns regarding online exams, impersonation and copying and pasting.

Before an online exam commences, a browser lockdown must be enforced to prevent students from copying and pasting. Student identification, via a camera, must be established to forestall impersonation.

After the initial identification, continuous identification should be conducted every few seconds to ensure there is no impersonation. Exam questions should be randomised and selected by the system just before the exam to prevent leakage of questions. Each question should be timed to further foil cheating.

Next, an online exam control centre where remote invigilators can monitor exams and assist with problems, warn, or remotely stop an exam when cheating is obvious should be established. From the remote control centre, one invigilator can monitor hundreds of students.

On the invigilator’s screen, each student’s name, photo and biodata, etc. should be displayed. The software should scan each student to look for infractions, raise an exception flag when it suspects cheating so the invigilator can take appropriate action.

To minimise online cheating, LMS developers have amassed and continue to amass and study a compendium of cheating behaviours and techniques and continue to develop advanced proctoring software to neutralise them.

Cheating is neutralised by using specific technology or technologies to target identified and emerging cheating behaviour.

How technology is used in exams Impersonating

Online ID authentication, such as face ID and biometrics are used to prevent impersonation. Identification is continuous, from beginning to end of the exam session. 

Students’ faces are checked against their identities stored by the institution.

Screen sharing or mirroring: This technique allows students to use more than one monitor while doing an online exam. In this scenario, the student uses one monitor to access the exam questions, while the other monitor mirrors the contents of the main monitor.

An off-screen impersonator then accesses the test questions and comes up with answers. Screen sharing or mirroring is combated by imposing a browser lockdown at the onset of the exam. The lockdown denies students access, for the duration of the exam, to display settings that enable screen sharing on their device.

Cheating with devices

Smartphones and some programmable scientific calculators enable students to store data and formulas and use them during online exams. Students try to escape detection by keeping the device out of the perspective of the monitoring camera.

However, proctoring software that records head, keystroke and eye movement defeats this ploy because it flags eye, head and hand movements that fall outside of the defined normal movement parameters. To fool eye monitoring software, some students wear sunshades. When such violations are noticed, remote invigilators contact the student.

The ability of the camera to see even slightly out of bound movements and report these acts as a psychological barrier to cheating.

While some students may use high-tech devices to cheat, others may opt for low-tech methods, such as writing on their palms or on cheat sheets. These approaches fail because they depend on the exam questions being leaked, which is not the case if just-in-time questions are used.

Intercepting video feeds

During online exams, the proctoring software relies on a camera to monitor the student’s actions and activities that may signal cheating.

Some students try to fool the proctoring software by pre-recording themselves behaving in a normal way so that when the proctoring software attempts to pull a live feed from the student’s camera, the student’s software intercepts the proctoring software and provides the prerecorded feed from a virtual webcam

Cheating and academic integrity policies

The use of advanced technology and psychological factors go a long way in creating a secure online exam environment. However, clearly defining cheating policies and setting clear expectations for students and staff is also important.

searching online answers

In this scenario, students copy questions and paste them into Google search bar or to websites, like Quizlet, Chegg, Brainny, Indiabix or Course Hero to get answers. Browser lockdown thwarts this approach and in cases where the student uses a device that is hidden, the student will consume a lot of time will run afoul of time due to timing of questions. And the software will pick up on the student’s eye and body movements and raise an out-of-bounds flag. 

In addition to the ethics of it, policies should clearly outline when devices are allowed and the acceptable parameters for using them in online exams that require the use of devices. Policies should also define upfront, prohibitions, such as wearing sunshades during exams, etc. Since the online exam experience is relatively new to a large number of institutions and students, it is a good idea to require students to sign an honour code on admission or prior to their first online exam.

Exams are a major component in education. The use of LMSs to combat several forms of online cheating has made online exams secure and reliable. However, no technology is foolproof. The cat and mouse game between those who test and those who are tested will continue. Some current LMSs use artificial intelligence (AI) to counter online cheating.

While AI does an excellent job, it cannot keep up with smarter ways by which students may cheat in the future. For this, newer LMSs are incorporating Machine Learning (ML) algorithms so the machine can learn exam cheating behaviours on its own and adapt to defeat them.

With continued advancement in technology, online exam systems will evolve faster and soon be much more secure than face-to-face exam systems. As long as a good LMS is used, online exams can be conducted securely.

By: Dr. Emeka | Vice-Chancellor at International University of East Africa

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