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Next Steps for New Online Courses: Measure Learning, Prevent Cheating

(This article is one of two in a package. The other is “Arab Universities Struggle With Final Exams and Reopening Decisions.”)

With higher education forced online following the closing of virtually all campuses to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, educators across the Arab region have been grappling with a new challenge—how to determine what students have learned.

The first impulse of many instructors was to administer online the exams they would have given in the classroom. After all, many faculty members are used to basing their students’ grades, to a greater or lesser degree, on their performance on such traditional exams.

But instructors quickly found that there were problems with this idea, one of the main ones being the risk of cheating. “Distance education has not been widely accredited in this region, mainly because of authentication issues,” says Senthil Nathan, managing director and co-founder of Edu Alliance Ltd, an education consulting firm based in Abu Dhabi.

“You could get your brother or another person to take test.”

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But there are a growing number of technologies being developed to verify the identity of the person taking a test online. According to Nathan, these include image, voice and iris recognition techniques.

A ‘Gold Rush’ for Test Technologies

Dominik L. Michels, a professor of computer sciences and mathematics at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a graduate level institution in Saudi Arabia known as KAUST, points to another strategy. He says researchers are developing applications using artificial intelligence to check whether the keystrokes of a person taking a test match those previously recorded for the student in question.

The need for authentication technologies has created “something like a gold rush, with many companies developing software,” says Michels.

As soon as campuses were shut, a number of universities rushed to acquire various programs to verify test-takers’ identity, monitor them via their computer’s video camera, and prevent the computer’s web browsers from functioning during an exam.

“Distance education has not been widely accredited in this region, mainly because of authentication issues.”

Senthil Nathan  
Managing director and co-founder of Edu Alliance Ltd., based in Abu Dhabi

However, many quickly discovered that students overwhelmingly opposed the use of such software, saying it adds to the stress they are already under from being forced to stay at home and switching precipitously from classroom- to distance-learning.

Alternatives to Written Exams

So, many universities changed course and asked their faculty members to use alternative ways to assess learning, such as switching to oral exams and assessments of student projects.

Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco’s largest institution, told instructors that when they use online exams, they should “choose questions that require reflection” to make cheating more difficult, says Omar Hniche, the university’s vice president for academic and student affairs.

Oral exams are seen as good tools but are very time-consuming. Yet KAUST, in Saudi Arabia, is making considerable use of them.

“We switched many of our exams from written to oral,” says Michels. “It’s more work for the professors, but KAUST has relatively small classes, so it’s easier.”

The American University in Cairo acquired the Respondus company’s LockDown Browser, a popular program that prevents a computer from searching the web or performing other functions while a student is taking an exam. The program can also use the video camera on test-takers’ computers to monitor them.

“We’ve had lots of meetings with the minister (of Education and Higher Education), who recently announced that distance education will be authorized.”

Carla Eddé  
Vice-rector for international relations at Saint Joseph University of Beirut

“But students protested,” says Ehab Abdel-Rahman, AUC’s Provost. “We understand their concerns,” he says, and have largely switched to alternative methods, especially assessments of an end-of-term project.

Birzeit University, in Palestine, has prohibited “classic exams” in distance education, according to Abaher El-Sakka, a professor of sociology. “Some professors do exams online anyway, calling them quizzes or evaluations or something else,” he says. “Personally, I don’t do that. I have students do projects, like some research or a review of literature, or analysis of a film.”

Lack of Authorizing Legislation

In most countries in the region, higher education law does not authorize distance education or assessments of such learning. But in the current crisis, national authorities have signaled they will overlook such legal issues to allow universities to keep their teaching programs going online. Educators say the crisis is likely to speed changes to national laws.

“We’ve had lots of meetings with the minister (of Education and Higher Education), who recently announced that distance education will be authorized,” says Carla Eddé, vice-rector for international relations at Saint Joseph University of Beirut.

She adds that Saint Joseph and the American University of Beirut, two leading private institutions in Lebanon, have been working together on wording of a draft law on the issue.

Nathan, the education consultant, says higher education accreditation agencies will be very interested in how universities carry out distance assessments. “They may give a pass now, but in the future, they may require new methods.”


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