First, an appropriate caveat: Most Kenyan university students are inherently good, and always exercise utmost integrity in their examinations.
The few who cheat, however, are a perennial thorn in the flesh of academic managers. These are sometimes identifiable by their bizarre affinity for heavy jackets, hoods, caps -and often- the briefest wads of miniskirts (the weather notwithstanding) just before examinations.
To know the sinister purposes of this seasonal wardrobe transformation by ‘comrades’ is to nod understandingly at the direction of the several Kenyan universities that have recently instituted strict dress codes on their students to much chagrin of human rights crusaders.
Heavy jackets - a perennial fixture in a cheat’s bag of tools - are what armor is to the military. They ably conceal the summarised notes, smartphones, and the like (which are all highly illegal materials in the examination room), from the view of hawk-eyed invigilators.
Meanwhile, some women are waging psychological warfare by weaponizing the shortest of micro skirts as paperless aids to writing illegal notes on anatomical regions where hapless male invigilators cannot inspect without inviting fearsome litigation.
Baseball caps, and other bushy headgear convert a user into a veritable chameleon who can copy discreetly from the neighbors to the front, left, or right by providing the illusion of a stringent forward gaze while simultaneously allowing furtive eye movement in three cardinal directions.
That explains the resemblance of semestrial examinations to a mini war zone - complete with fairly serious espionage, mean-looking faces, electronic surveillance, terse frisking, and even metal detection.
Whenever these tricks are busted, there is one final bold hara-kiri of ‘swallowing the evidence’, a skill probably honed in past grueling bread-eating competitions. It works like this: A student is caught cheating red-handed. He or she calmly crushes the notes and swallows them as the hapless examiner watches flabbergasted. There is no evidence left. So, there will be no case.
It is utterly incomprehensible why examination cheats go to such lengths to engage in subterfuge when the route of honest study is by far less taxing. This practice is reminiscent of habitual kleptomaniacs who needlessly lift the cheapest items from shops even when their wallets are bursting with wads of cash!
Like Chinua Achebe’s bird Eneke who learned to fly without perching upon realizing that his adversaries could now shoot without missing, university examinations managers have also engaged a higher gear in bid to uphold the integrity of institutional examinations. Adapting biometric verification technologies, updating examination policies and operating procedures, and other related measures are being leveraged to counter the increased sophistry of exam room con artists.
The ‘examination malpractices’ sections of the students’ handbooks and examination policies of some institutions have consequently become so detailed and bulky as to resemble documents lifted from the archives of the Supreme Court.
Despite the severe penalties levied for sneaking intellectual contraband into examination venues which range from summary cancellation of examinations to suspension from the institutions for several years, success in dissuading hard-core practitioners from their brazen sleight of hand has only been partial.
Surprisingly, the greatest challenges to university examinations today come from the very thing which was expected to bring lasting redemption: Technological advancement. Indeed, for every CCTV camera mounted, there is that innocuous-looking smartwatch that can carry tonnes of information. For every deterrent, a YouTube video explaining exactly how to circumvent it.
Free hacking tools (such as those provided by the open-source Kali Linux and lessons easily accessible on the Internet have turned many an average IT enthusiast into a lethal keyboard warrior, capable of torpedoing the examinations of entire institutions with the click of a button. Nothing illustrates this better than an episode last week where a high school student half round the world away in Indonesia reportedly held a Kenyan university to ransom after breaching its website!
Additionally, natural language processing software powered by generative artificial intelligence and large language models technology such as the much-discussed GPT-4 (which the vendor says can “answer follow-up questions, admit its mistakes, and challenge incorrect premises”) have sneaked in from the cloud (pun intended) and effectively obliterated all existing document validation guardrails.
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This has resulted in formative elements of university assessment such as essays, assignments, and projects which were traditionally easily validated using effective anti-plagiarism tools, getting pretty hard to nail down.
Against this backdrop, the proposed university entrance examination is most welcome to sieve out the charlatans at the source, the way the two-year pre-university A-level studies once did. It could be complemented by a migration to online models of assessment which eschew the summative approach, and which possibly employ non-standardized, criterion-referenced and randomized test questions. This is easily achievable with the help of technology.
Lastly, there is hope that the arrival at the universities in 2029 of the pioneering students of the Competency-Based Curriculum - a cohort created mainly through formative evaluation - will further minimize examination cheating.
-Dr Wahome is the Director of Examinations and Time-tabling at Laikipia University