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Post-secondary schools shift focus, use software to prevent cheating on exams

Post-secondary institutions are adapting how they assess students this semester, with a focus on take-home assignments and online proctoring software meant to guard against cheating online.
Photo University of Victoria campus
Students keep their distance near McPherson Library on the sparsely populated University of Victoria campus in March 2020.

Post-secondary institutions are adapting how they assess students this semester, with a focus on take-home assignments and online proctoring software meant to guard against cheating online.

Most students are learning online during the pandemic, and their assessments are happening virtually as well — forcing schools to shift how they test students.

John Boraas, vice-president of education at Camosun College, said less than one-third of students attend some part of their program on campus. The rest are learning online, and most will also have online assessments.

To prevent cheating, instructors are encouraged to focus on assignments that require students to synthesize course material, rather than exams based on memorization, Boraas said.

Classes that are taking place on campus, such as trades, most health care programs and those that involve labs, will host in-person exams.

The college has two programs — accounting and dental hygiene — that require accreditation by an official body, and they will hold online exams using a proctoring software that accesses a computer’s camera and microphone to monitor a student’s movement.

Boraas said the Proctorio software is fairly effective at preventing cheating, but it can be anxiety-inducing for many students.

“Students worry that if they have to use the washroom in the middle of an exam that they’ll fail the exam,” he said.

Fillette Umulisa, an executive member of the Camosun College Student Society board of directors, said there’s been a mixed response from students to online learning and assessments. Students like herself who benefit from more traditional classroom learning have had a hard time adjusting, she said. “It’s been really hard getting that A you always crave.”

Without a class schedule to follow, many students are struggling to manage their time effectively, sometimes facing Wi-Fi connection issues when assessments are due and feeling disconnected from their instructors.

“Another thing that I’m hearing from students is, you know, they’re not sure if they want to go back next semester, if it’s going to be online as well, because it’s really, really stressful,” Umulisa said.

Emily Lowan, an executive on the UVic Students’ Society board, said a lot of students have struggled with maintaining attention and motivation while learning online, and some instructors appear to be challenged by the transition.

“For a lot of students, it’s really taken the joy out of learning, which is so discouraging to hear,” Lowan said.

At Royal Roads University, Proctorio is being used to administer online exams, and instructors are designing randomized exams so students have a slightly different set of questions and in a different order.

The University of Victoria decided against using the artificial intelligence software because of privacy concerns. Instead, it’s using a system called Respondus that allows invigilators to ensure only one web browser window is open during a scheduled assessment period. The program does not access a computer’s camera or microphone to record activity.

At Vancouver Island University, there only eight in-person exams scheduled for the upcoming exam period. In December 2019, there were 540 scheduled exams, the vast majority of which were held in person.

Like other institutions, instructors are asked to reimagine how they assess students, designing exams that require analysis and application of course material, “which do a better assessment of the student’s ability to absorb and use the knowledge,” said Carol Stuart, provost and vice-president academic.

The assessments are likely to hold students to a higher standard, and the shift in focus is likely to continue after the pandemic, Stuart said.

“There’s definitely interest in continuing with the alternative forms of assessment.”

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