online exams
Online exams and grading are on top of the online learner's list of concerns right now. Source: Alain Jocard/AFP

As universities brace for closures for the rest of the academic year, students don’t want online exams to become the elephant in the room.

One of them is Javiera Quiroz-Fernandez, BSc Mathematics & Physics undergraduate at France’s École Polytechnique.

“Due to the uncertainty on the current situation, we are still not sure how final exams and grades will be adapted,” she said.

She currently completes weekly assessments online for each subject ⁠— a way for teachers to ensure student progress remains on track. On top of that, she is graded on more challenging exercises that delve deeper into each subject. There are typically three such assessments throughout the semester.

“Even though it can be hard to decide how to fairly grade students remotely, the uncertainty can also be overwhelming for students struggling to adapt to this new way of learning,” Javiera expressed.

“Knowing how teachers are expecting to grade us in the long-term could be helpful for students to better organise themselves and prioritise certain tasks.”

online exams

Given the exceptional circumstances of higher education today, should cheating in exams still be an issue of contention? Source: Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP

Will online exams compromise academic integrity?

High-school leavers in the US can now take their Advanced Placement (AP) virtually. MBA hopefuls can sit for the online version of the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAT) exam.

If these major assessments can be moved online, what’s stopping universities from embracing online exams?

Infrastructure and access are legitimate concerns, of course. In India, central universities are simply not equipped for online exams. Neither are their students in rural areas.

However, many universities with the capacity to move online are still weighing the decision ⁠— particularly the ethics of invigilating online exams.

In the UAE, students at Abu Dhabi University are opposing the institution’s invigilating measures. The university wants students to have their webcams and microphones turned on during exams so invigilators can monitor what they do, where they are and even what they’re wearing.

Cath Ellis, associate dean of education at UNSW Sydney, told Times Higher Education that online exams should not compromise academic integrity.

“Students have always cheated in exams. Our research showed it is still the place where most contract cheating is happening. In some ways, moving them online is giving us better access to information about their behaviours than we would otherwise have,” she said.

The University of New England is already piloting this notion. All assessments are now conducted online with appropriate digital invigilation measures in place.

This includes remotely checking students’ computers for unauthorised software and using artificial intelligence to recognise faces, typing styles and the presence of other people in the examination area.

online exams

While online exams have long been the norm at distance-learning universities, COVID-19 has forced other top institutions to expedite their transition. Source: Saeed Khan/AFP

Universities and students stand to benefit

Abbas Abbasov, who is doing his PhD in Comparative International Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, anticipates an open-book test for his module this semester.

“My coursemates did timed online exams for their midterms. It was an open-book exam where students were free to use any resource covered during the class,” he said.

While he agrees this leaves room for students to abuse the system, Abbas believes this should not discount the potential of online exams.

“Online exams may provide students more flexibility since we get to do it in a familiar environment with all study resources at hand,” he opined.

If properly executed, online exams can bring benefits to the university’s bottom line, too. For example, Monash University Australia — which aims to move 80 percent of exams online by this year — anticipates saving approximately AU$7 million (US$4.7 million) per annum on grading.

Such a cut in expenditure is welcome in a time where universities stand to lose billions in international student spending. In the UK, several leading institutions are so pressed for funds that they may need bailouts.

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