Lessons from Covid-19 – Paradigm shift through distance testing (4)

Completely secure online exams are neither possible nor necessary. In many cases they do not even make sense. Instead, the current situation shows us how we could fundamentally change the credentialing system for the benefit of all. In Part 1 of this mini-series, we gave an overview of how the health crisis is changing university life. In Part 2 we discussed infrastructure and in Part 3 didactic aspects of distance learning. This left out the white elephant in the room: distance exams.

Ensuring fairness

In order to guarantee fair examinations, it is essential to prevent the use of unauthorised resources – especially unauthorised data/documents, tools and human aids. The prevention of exchanges between examinees during an examination is particularly critical, because on the one hand this “exchange” is particularly effective and on the other hand has a similar high social acceptance as the proverbial “cheat sheet”. Whether on-site or at a distance, varying examination questions is helpful, but only automated or at least easily possible in parts of mathematics and the natural sciences, as well as for special tasks in other areas (computer science, art, architecture, etc.). Varying exam questions combined with random order gives each examinee an individual exam, making unauthorised sharing among examinees more difficult. Complex tasks also make it difficult to copy answers because in their case identical statements are extremely unlikely without substitution. They are suitable for all disciplines, but test very specific competencies: namely, giving convincing written partial answers under high time pressure. To allow access to permitted digital resources and prevent access to unpermitted digital resources, secure browsers such as the SafeExambrowser can be used for on-site online exams. If the exam takes place at a distance and thus without supervision, video surveillance is really the only way to help. This means more than just transmitting the face as in a video conference. For an effective control, the screen content and the environment must also be transmitted with the tools used. There are certainly solutions for this, because examinations at a distance are nothing new. However, they are always an invasion of privacy and only a few are compatible with the universities’ guidelines on handling data (as in Bavaria, for example). Video surveillance is also a deterrent and increases the ever-present risk of something going wrong. For example, if video transmission is interrupted, how is a network failure to be distinguished from a fraud attempt? Video surveillance and control at a distance by humans also requires a great deal of effort. Artificial intelligence can help here, however. Corresponding solutions can even recognise individual persons by their typing behaviour or conclude that there is another person in the room on the basis of brightness fluctuations. In cases of suspicion, however, exam fraud is often difficult to prove without a confession. In the coming years, video surveillance solutions will also be challenged by technical advances. One example is the production of deepfakes. Using deepfake technologies for exams may appear to require substantial criminal intent, but it can also be misconstrued as a sporting contest with examiners in the same way as traditional cheating in on-site exams. Therefore, the fairness guarantee provided by video surveillance will actually diminish unless it is constantly expanded.

Alternative approaches

The question is whether a technological arms race around examinations is the best way to guarantee the greatest possible fairness. Proportionality must be taken into account. In the case of a seminar, Bachelor’s or Master’s thesis, it cannot be guaranteed with absolute certainty that it was written exclusively independently. Today, such a thesis can even be bought in its entirety. So why focus all the attention on “written” exams? Last but not least, ramping up control undermines the basis of trust between lecturers and students. At some elite universities, on the contrary, it is common practice for students to write the exams “at home”, checking the time themselves, and then submitting the exams by email. Although there are also controls there to prevent consistent cheating, a large part of the written examinations is based on the principle of trust. Behind this is not only a greater basis of trust between university and students, but also a different understanding of examinations. At these universities, examinations are mainly understood as formative, i.e. as a tool to determine and improve one’s own learning status. In contrast to this are the “usual” normative examinations, which ensure a certain level. Formative examinations primarily serve to provide feedback on learning progress – in addition to absolute feedback, they often also provide comparative feedback. Although they are also used for motivation and contain a compulsory element, self-control is more important than external control.

A question of attitude

The current health crisis forces us to conduct examinations at a distance and to adopt an attitude: Do we want to invade privacy by invasive means and go all in for control, knowing that this will not work one hundred percent and will require a lot of effort, or do we want to go for trust? Studies indicate (see, for example, statements by the rector of the University of Zurich) that without video control, cheating occurs in about 0.5% of exams. At the same time, one must assume that a decision for more control will undermine the basis of trust at the university – with negative consequences for the relationship between students and university after graduation. If we opt for trust – and there is much to be said for this in the Central European higher education context – we still have a great deal of leeway in how much we put trustworthiness to the test. It seems reasonable, again referring to the Central European cultural context, to choose a setting in which the use of unauthorised resources requires a greater effort. In the case of closed book exams, this can be partially achieved with a secure browser, but better are open book exams with a rather tight time constraint – preferably with varied individual exam questions where this can be done fairly with little effort.

A possible change of perspective

Going beyond the question of attitude, we can and should take the health crisis as an opportunity, on the one hand, to make the majority of performance certificates formative, including the possibility of comparing one’s own performance with that of others, and on the other hand, to increase fairness in seminar, Bachelor’s and Master’s theses. Both can be combined. A consistently formative approach to performance assessment requires that there be regular tests during the semester – both of learned skills and of their application in a more complex context. Since in practice non-graded tests are ignored by many students, all test results should contribute to the final grade. However, it also makes sense to allow students to take the tests several times and to prevent a “discrete” acquisition of knowledge in which 60% is mastered excellently and 20% not at all. Swiss school practice in mathematics is a cautionary example of how devastating compensation logic can be. For example, those who do not learn fractions while at school often only learn fractions at university, as unbelievable as this sounds. Analogous retention of knowledge deficits should be avoided at universities. In the case of semester, Bachelor’s and Master’s theses, close coaching supervision also offers the possibility of formative support for these achievements. In addition, this reduces the incentive to buy the examination paper. However, coaches should always remain aware that they must also assess the performance fairly in the end.

The future perspective

In sum, the whole examination system could be reorganised in such a way that largely formative examinations are combined with some normative examinations, which ensure that students also acquire the ability to deliver high quality professional performance at critical moments in their professional lives. The formative examinations could also be provided online after the health crisis – with the side effect of reducing examination anxiety as well as the stressful situations of mass examinations in large rooms. This would also reduce the organisational burden of examinations. Above all, however, it would promote consistent and continuous learning during studies and thus improve the impact of studying. And the door would be opened wide for new forms of performance assessment and for more individualised support for students.


Reto Jud is head of the Business Information Systems program at BFH Wirtschaft.

AUTOR/AUTORIN: Reinhard Riedl

Prof. Dr Reinhard Riedl is a lecturer at the Institute of Digital Technology Management at BFH Wirtschaft. He is involved in many organisations and is, among other things, Vice-President of the Swiss E-Government Symposium and a member of the steering committee of TA-Swiss. He is also a board member of eJustice.ch, Praevenire - Verein zur Optimierung der solidarischen Gesundheitsversorgung (Austria) and All-acad.com, among others.

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