COVID-19 has made in-person exam proctoring impossible and so normal safeguards have disappeared. My inbox is full of anguished emails from university students across Pakistan bewailing the use of unfair and unethical means by their class fellows. Upon combining these complaints with those of my colleagues in various universities, and adding in my own online teaching experience, a frighteningly dismal picture emerges.
Almost every university student in this country cheats. Perhaps the actual figure is lower (80-90 per cent?) but it’s hard to tell. Many students say they are reluctant and would opt for honesty if there was a level playing field. But exercising virtue brings bad grades or even failure. Rare is the student with strong moral conviction — or perhaps lack of opportunity — who is not complicit.
A system full of holes is easy to beat. Not regarded as a significant moral crime, cheating was plentiful even in the days of in-person classes. But with online exams, the bottom has dropped out. Knowing their paychecks will be unaffected, many teachers don’t care what their students do. If one is somehow caught, cheating can always be deemed to be that student’s fault. After all, the pathways to cheating are so many.
The difficulty of preventing online cheating and low ethical standards means that these days most students cheat.
Consider: while taking an exam the home-bound student supposedly sits facing his/her laptop camera without access to books, notes, or smartphone. Correspondingly, the teacher is supposed to be eagle-eyed, watching many students simultaneously on Zoom or MsTeams. Neither supposition is true. For example moving slightly out of the camera’s field of view allows the student to copy the question and insert it into the Google search bar of that laptop or a hidden smartphone. The answer pops up even before he/she fully finishes typing.
What of a question which Google cannot answer? Such slightly clever questions can indeed be devised by a conscientious professor. One shared with me how that worked out with her class of 30. In an exam none of her students got any question right. But, upon inspection, it turned out that every wrong answer belonged to one of six near-identical sets. Conclusion: the students were either sitting in the same room or had created WhatsApp groups with members messaging each other during the exam.
From a frustrated student who emailed me from an engineering university in Karachi, I learned something brand new after which I explored the matter further. Fact: there exists a plethora of commercial companies that will get you the required answer for almost every exam question. Among them are study aids Chegg, Quizlet, Course Hero and Brainly.
The ones I tried out with physics and math problems give instant answers. All you need to do is cut and paste the exam question into the indicated box. These answer services use artificial intelligence and operate without human intervention. While not cheap, they are affordable. According to my informant, students pool in to buy a subscription and then share answers over WhatsApp. More expensive are answer services staffed by human expert essay writers. The student need provide only basic information such as the topic and some course materials.
Special automated proctoring services, hired by overseas educational institutions, can catch cheaters who are taking their exam at home. These services block browsers from accessing forbidden websites, check to see if the student has contacted a friend or answer service, verify identity and geographical location, and see if the student is looking at flash cards or boards, etc. Some can even detect Bluetooth devices and suspicious movements of the test-takers’ head, keystrokes, and eyes.
Although such proctoring services probably have some value overseas, their utility in Pakistan is doubtful and they are not used. Apart from the cost, they also assume that a student has a quiet room, wide-angle webcam, and stable internet connection. This excludes rural areas but even in cities the last condition is not easily fulfilled.
Can any online exam work in these circumstances? The answer is: yes. A one-on-one oral exam over Skype or Zoom is the only totally safe method. But this is tedious for large classes and checks only a small aspect of his or her learning. To my knowledge, only a few university teachers use it.
Despite difficulties in evaluating students, online university education has worked reasonably well in some countries. Indeed, there are distinct advantages in going digital: an instructor’s recorded lectures can be rewound and reviewed at will for self-paced learning, students can ask questions online without feeling intimidated, and learning is available 24 hours a day. Additionally, a wealth of information and knowledge is just a click away and helps a student understand difficult points.
Why then is online learning failing so miserably in Pakistan? Why has fancy 21st-century education gadgetry not excited our students’ imagination? Why don’t our academic environments sparkle with energy? Two obvious reasons stare at us. First, the generally uninspiring online lectures delivered by teachers. Second, most students and many teachers have insufficient mastery over English to usefully engage with internet learning materials.
But a more serious, much deeper reason underlies this failure. Pakistan’s education system gives importance only to getting high grades, not to actually learning a subject. Even a good teacher — and these are few and far between — cannot make a student study, read books, meet schedules, and take responsibility. Real learning is purely voluntary. Largely a result of childhood training, it cannot be forced upon students. There is an age-old adage: education is all about learning to learn. The internet and Google have made this clear as never before. Every student today has good grades but only a few actually learn while in college or university.
Although our student body is hyper religious and regular in prayer, almost all are perfectly comfortable with cheating. But online testing cannot work unless cheating is viewed for what it is — a white-collar crime. Students willing to experiment, question, model, and wrestle with a problem alone can benefit from 21st-century online education. The bottom line: Pakistan’s education system must change direction. It must seek to create a proactive mindset and an ethical community.
The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and writer.
Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2021