ISLAMABAD: Revelations regarding the use of sophisticated devices for the purposes of cheating in the recently held Medical and Dental Colleges Admission Test (MDCAT) have alarmed the medical community. But while the power corridors have vowed to root out those involved in these unfair practices, medical professionals and technology experts believe that the issue can be tackled through the use of modern methods.

The MDCAT was held on September 10 across the country, with over 180,000 candidates appearing in the test. However, soon afterwards, rumours and reports began to emerge, especially from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), that some students relied on Bluetooth devices and other tools to cheat their way through the entry test for medical colleges in Pakistan.

For Health Minister Dr Nadeem Jan, it was shocking that advanced technology was being used for cheating.

“A JIT has been established and I promise the nation the culprits will be taken to task. Mafias were involved in it and that is why we have requested the agencies to investigate it. I also blame the parents who want to make their children doctors [at all cost], and for that purpose they are ready to spend money, and use even unfair means,” he told Dawn.

Experts say GSM pens, Bluetooth receivers can be foiled through jamming

Dr Jan claimed that a Joint Investigation Team (JIT), headed by an additional inspector general of the Special Branch was working to expose the “mafias” involved in the cheating racket. He also alleged that some renowned educational academies could be involved in the use of unfair means to fulfil the promises they had made when they guaranteed their students high marks.

According to a notification issued by the KP government last week, sophisticated technical equipment such as wireless GSM pens equipped with microphones and micro earpieces and GSM SIM-operated devices were among the unfair means used in the exams.

Former Pakistan Medical Associ­ation (PMA) Secretary General Dr Qaiser Sajjad told Dawn that as per his information, these were spying devices manufactured in China.

“The device can be in different shapes, such as a pen, and it has ear plugs which are so small that they cannot be observed by invigilators. The GSM pen allows one person to speak, most likely from outside the hall, and several students with having ear plugs can listen in and solve the paper as per speaker’s advice,” he said.

But incumbent PMA Secretary General Dr Ghafoor Shoro saw corruption as being behind the use of unfair means in the MDCAT exam, saying that such practices cannot not be stopped as long as people are willing to commit such unethical acts.

Questions on competence

This episode raises a more pertinent question about the competence of doctors who have to resort to such unfair means to clear the very test that would get them entry to medical college.

A few years ago, former minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan caused an uproar when he claimed that several Pakistani pilots had obtained fake licences, or had cleared their exams by unfair means. Although his claim generated a lot of controversy and, in the end, turned out to be mostly unsubstantiated, the issued raised then also applies to the present situation.

In the view of ex-PMA secretary Dr Sajjad: “Cheating has made emergency medicine doubtful… in cases of emergency, people rush to the hospital without caring about who the doctor is or how qualified they are. Those who cheated their way through the system could potentially kill patients.”

He believes a code of conduct needed to be evolved for medical exams and there should be life-time ban on anyone who uses unfair means.

Dr Shoro also focused on the element of inequality such practices would bring into the process of selection for medical education. “I fear that a child from a lower or middle-income family would get left behind, since only the privileged would be able to ‘buy’ seats of medical colleges,” he said.

Solutions

But while medical professionals are pessimistic, technology experts suggest there are various way to use modern tools to counter the use of unfair means in exams like the MDCAT.

Leap Progressive Technologies CEO Touqeerud Din told Dawn it was possible to restrict wireless communication in exam halls. “First of all it is important to identify mode of communication being used by students. Standard off-the-shelf gadgets or devices can be easily blocked using standard off-the-shelf frequency jammers,” he said.

He said that Bluetooth devices operating on 2.4GHz frequency and can be networked together using different topologies.

“For example, students can communicate with each other at will, this is quite complex and requires special setup. On the other hand, an easier way is to make one of the devices a transmitter, while all the others are used for listening alone. And the most common and easier method is where students can communicate in pairs alone i.e. one-to-one communication.”

Whatever method is in use, he says, as long as it uses Bluetooth, it can be blocked using any off-the-shelf 2.4GHz jammer. Meanwhile, Wi-Fi devices can operate on 2.4GHz or 5.0GHz or both, and can be blocked using standard jammers of the corresponding frequencies.

Other possibilities include the use of custom-built devices, which may be operating on a range of radio frequency bands, such as FM, UHF, VHF or anything on ISM band, the kind normally used by various wireless gadgets such as car remotes, remote bells, remote toys, radio and video transmitters etc. “Once the frequency is known, it is easy to obtain or manufacture a jammer,” Mr Touqeer said.

Another telecom expert, Wahaj-ul-Siraj, told Dawn that Bluetooth devices could only be used at short range, e.g. within 100 feet or so, and can easily be blocked by jammers.

“Portable jammers are available for $500-$1,000 in the international market,” he said. According to him, as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth can operate on different frequencies, it was even possible to block one and not the other, for example, in the case of online tests.

PMDC’s stance

But when asked whether the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PMDC), the accreditation body for the MDCAT, could deploy such measures in the future, Registrar Azhar Ali Shah said that since PMDC was not making arrangements for or organising the tests themselves, it would fall to the provinces or the universities hosting the test to take such preventive measures.

He also downplayed the issue, saying that since answer keys had been shared with students who appeared in the MDCAT, it was mostly who were aware that they could not clear the test, who have been raising a hue and cry.

Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2023

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