Online exams

Tuesday 2 February 2016

A research team in Barcelona has produced a system for ensuring the validity of online assessment - essentially, by making sure that the person taking the assessment online is who they ought to be, and is not getting inappropriate help. The system can be used with any ordinary computer, since it makes use of existing hardware. It checks identity through a combination of data sources:-

  • facial features - using the webcam, the system recognises the face of the person using the computer
  • voice recognition - where appropriate, the person's distinctive voice patterns can be checked
  • typing patterns - apparently, we all have idiosyncratic styles of typing on the keyboard
  • linguistic style patterns - the system identifies distinctive features of the use of sentence structure, frequency of vocabulary use, and so on ... and of course can contrast those with the style of any other piece of writing, thus checking for possible plagiarism

The system will be undergoing live trials over the next couple of years, with 14,000 students of the Universitat Obert de Catalunya, the catalan distance learning centre. The team is confident of the viability of the system and so, it seems is the European Union, which has put 7 million euros into the project. And the next step planned is to apply the system in secondary education.

So, is this the future for the IB? I know that senior IB management would dearly love to have all IB assessment made virtual, online. This is not just a matter of saving the cost of producing and shuffling around hundreds of thousands of bits of paper - it is also that online exams would be so accessible and manipulable, since they would be available for marking as soon as the exam had ended, and could be inspected by any examiner, anywhere, immediately, for discussion, cross-marking and  evaluation. So I can imagine that the IB will be looking very closely at this prototype system.

But... but... what exactly would be the consequences? In practice? In educational terms? Without knocking the project, here are a few critical thinking considerations:-

Would handwriting become more or less redundant? The prototype system assumes that everything would be written by typing on a keyboard. OK, so the skills of trimming a feather pen have become redundant in modern times - but is the skill of handwriting really that redundant?

For how much time would each student have to work on a laptop to provide the recognition data? Notice that this system has been promoted by an organisation which deals with university level distance learning - with courses online which presumably require that the student completes a range of different consultations and assignments before any summative testing. Can ... would ... should school students be expected to do the same?

Might this make exams as such redundant? If students have to do a lot of work online, maybe assessment would become entirely continuous assessment...? But would this be a good thing? Is the old-style, 'exam-conditions' type of testing actually irreplaceable in terms of reliability?

Is it possible for all students to have a laptop? And a laptop dedicated to their own personal use, since changing keyboards might change the typing patterns used for recognition?

Would students use the same laptop for exams as for normal class work? Because, if so, would students then be able to access all their notes from all their courses? Or would there have to be special 'clean' laptops for exam use only? And what would that cost?

Answers to these questions? Well, your guess is as good as mine at present, but I would bet that all of the issues implied by the Barcelona project are going to need to be seriously considered ... and very soon.


Word games
19 Dec 2015

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