Administering exams online for universities has many pitfalls

MKU ICT Director Vincent Karuru guides Stella Mwangi a fourth-year student through the process of sitting for her online exam. [File, Standard]

Since Covid-19, universities have learned and adapted to the world of teaching online. At the end of the semester, unlike the period before Covid-19, many universities administer exams online, always learning and improving the standards. For the first time, particularly for Masters and PhD students, a student can enrol, attend classes and graduate without setting foot on the university grounds except, perhaps for graduation.

Online teaching has several advantages.

In these hard economic times, transport expenses are minimised and valuable time is saved. Besides, teaching from one’s home library or study room in simple formal dress generates a feel-nice effect. One does not worry about brushing shoes or ensuring the laptop case has all the cables. The conveniences are immense.

My focus today is on administering online exams. Universities have re-skilled examiners on setting high-level exams following Bloom’s taxonomy. The examiners are to ensure exams have a blend of analytical, evaluative and creative questions for the student to demonstrate critical thinking in connecting concepts learned and applying the knowledge. Moreover, the examiners are to set questions that compel students to focus on answering questions before time is up.

Despite all these efforts on the part of university management, administering exams online has many pitfalls.

Firstly, the ever-advancing Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools provide numerous opportunities for students to, in a fraction of a minute, pull resources relevant to an exam question. They will then use these tools to put together answers that demonstrate high-level critical thinking and analysis. They will go a step further to conduct a plagiarism test and refine the document to fake originality. The problem is for examiners to authenticate the originality of the work as reflecting the capacity of the student to independently process the knowledge the course provides.

Secondly, with AI-assisted tools for academics easily accessible, it is a challenge for the examiners to assess learning outcomes to a required degree of quality and standards control. Since students may be using the tools to provide required answers, the examiner on the other end of the online teaching is disadvantaged in monitoring that these tools are used responsibly in enabling a student to learn and gather useful materials to do an exam but not replaced.

Thirdly, for many years, examiners taught and administered exams through what was commonly known as distance learning. This was and still is, albeit in modified forms, a teaching and learning platform that international universities use. With the advancement of AI-assisted tools, students ill-prepared for the exam will now easily engage someone to write the answers. It is difficult for examiners to figure out who wrote the exam. Some universities now demand that students turn on videos during exams to remedy this challenge.

Fourthly, talking about turning on videos during exams, teaching and learning online with either the lecturer or student deciding not to turn on video creates a lot of ambiguity. The lecturer assumes that all those who sign in are in attendance. Experience shows that signing in and attending lectures are two different things. Without this virtual interpersonal video connection, it is difficult for the examiner to approximate the quality of learning and therefore set the appropriate standard of examining the students.

Lastly, students who are keen to earn their mark may unnecessarily be tempted to use the tools, denying themselves a chance to deepen their knowledge and skills. 

Going forward, there is a need for universities to reflect on experiences of teaching and learning online in light of AI-assisted tools for academics. I encourage students to use these tools responsibly with the understanding that these are just tools to facilitate learning. However, some students use these tools as shortcuts to passing exams.

To create a fair online examination for students, there is a need to consider oral exams. Alternatively, students should do projects instead of term papers which they present and defend.