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At IITs, With Online Exams, Teachers Confront High-Tech Cheating

With the ubiquity of online teaching through video-conferencing platforms like Zoom and Google Meet comes the problem of conducting tests and examinations. This is a disproportionately significant issue in our examination-centered system. There is no physical classroom where the teacher can invigilate in person and policing is the only way we know to maintain the integrity of the examination. The mention of honour codes (an undertaking by students to voluntarily adhere to honest academic work) and take-home examinations invites giggles. To police examinations in the current online scenario, we ask students to write answers on paper sheets while keeping a mobile phone or a laptop camera focused on them so that the proctor can see them working. Sometimes, we ask them to work on one device and use the camera of a second device to display the live video.

This looks like a straightforward way of invigilating the examination remotely. Yet, there has been rampant cheating in many tests. Even high scorers have been involved, so this is not something that students are doing simply to “pass” the course. Much of it seems to be driven by the circular argument that since everyone else must be using unfair means to gain relative advantage, I too must do the same. The evidence for such malpractices comes from students’ confessions and “complaints” – more often, a case of one group of students snitching on another. We have seen innovation like never before in how to beat cameras and proctors: cheat sheets hidden inside answer books; extra mobile phones cleverly positioned outside the camera’s view so that answers can be shared and swapped through WhatsApp; searching for answers on the internet or looking at solution manuals using these “hidden” devices. More advanced techniques involve the use of tiny mics and speakers and then pretending to mumble or do “loud thinking”. Even more interestingly, examination recordings played back at high speed actually reveal “sudden unusual” gestures; then, when played back at slow speeds, these gestures can be identified as surreptitious actions such as accessing other devices, paper notes, and “looking elsewhere”.

The typical response to this situation has been that of bringing in even more technology “to solve the problem”: if the hands are not visible, focus a camera on that; focus on full body; if you cannot see what they are writing on their device, focus a camera on that; record your screen while working; do 360-degree scans every 15 minutes to show what objects are present in the surroundings. We are a short distance from the deployment of something extremely intrusive and untested, namely, “AI” (artificial intelligence), to analyse gestures, facial expressions, eye movements, body postures to identify “suspicious behavior”. The strategy of deploying even more hardware (e.g. devices, cameras, power supplies) seems quite absurd given that when the Covid crisis precipitated online activities, there was a recognition of the digital divide – that some students may not have access even to a single device to connect online; now, two devices are considered normal, so why not add more! Some may find this low-cost Turkish “innovation” of using mirrors quite interesting.

This is how the cat and cat game escalates, creating stress, for students to “follow” instructions, and for faculty to be “efficient” in their policing. Whatever faculty do, the students find some workaround. They spend significant time on perfecting ways to cheat while faculty waste their time discussing camera angles and what “anti-cheating” software to use. In addition, we have anger and hostile attitudes on all sides. A technical approach to address the problem of maintaining integrity in assessments ignores the massive weight of culturally ingrained attitudes and opportunistic behaviour driven by complex socio-political factors.

Chasing grades, by hook or by crook, begins in school. Many students have shared experiences of cheating that happens in schools – and how it is traumatic for those who do not want to indulge in unfair practices. Board examinations reinforce the “importance” of this rat race by awarding ridiculously high marks – sometimes touching 100% – and the crass eulogization of “toppers”. Stories abound of how parents arrange for their child’s school projects to be done by someone else, or even buying a “project” off the shelf. Here is a recent quote from a student, “Well, when I am being asked by my Chemistry teacher to simply download the investigatory project mandated by the CBSE so that my examination obligations are fulfilled, what else can I say? In a stark contrast to foreign institutions’ strict no-plagiarism policy, the Indian education system actively encourages students to copy-paste things off the internet without actually learning anything.”

Therefore, when students enter the portals of higher education institutions, for a very large number, the old “traditions” continue. The dilemmas of the more sincere students created by the wanton, unethical practices of their jugaadu classmates who demand access to their homework, laboratory journals, project reports and exam answer books (whenever possible) to copy from is quite common. The consequences of not “sharing” can be quite harsh – being called names on social media, social boycotts, and even threats. I have even known of cases where parents have called their child’s classmates and bullied them into “sharing” stuff! Very recently, I was approached by an anguished father about how his child, who studies in an IIT, was feeling depressed and anxious because so many of her classmates were cheating and scoring better than her.

One may wonder whether this indulgence in malpractices affects learning and the development of competence. Surely it does, and in other cultures where incompetence gets exposed because jugaad or posturing do not work, students care about how much they know, not just how much they score. We sadly have only few students who follow this philosophy.

It is not as if this issue is relevant only because of the unusual online situation precipitated by the Covid pandemic. Articles penned by students themselves have reported these issues many times (1, 2, 3). We could have stemmed the rot by imposing penalties and rustications, as is done in reputed institutions (1, 2) but we haven’t. Online assessments have just made this problem visible.

There is no simple way to sort out this mess. In the short term, the only good option is to hold offline examinations as and when the opportunity arises. Some institutes are experimenting by holding in-person examinations in Kendriya Vidyalayas all over the country, some are proceeding as with a “business as usual” attitude, others are trying to enforce technology-driven solutions. This is perhaps the time to experiment with long-term measures to repair our academic culture. Tweaking conventional tests by having long papers, different question papers for different students, open-books/notes, etc. do help in small ways, but do not prevent people from “sharing” answers or methods. The use of projects, term papers, oral examinations, and open-ended problems should be explored, along with the enforcement of severe penalties for copying and plagiarizing.

The deeper questions have no easy answers. How do we incentivize the importance of integrity and honesty amidst a dominant belief that such virtues are fit only for fairy tales and not the “real” world; how do we convince students that cheating comes in the way of learning; what do we say when they retort that what is being taught does not interest them or is irrelevant to their career plans; how do we explain that blustering and jugaad are not a “smart” skills. And, finally, how do we persuade parents that training their wards to be worldly-wise does not mean telling them to “get ahead” at all costs.

Ignoring this malaise, or pretending that it does not exist, will not make it go away; it will only worsen it to irreparable levels.

(Anurag Mehra is a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Associate Faculty at the Center for Policy Studies, at IIT Bombay.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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