The Digital Transformation of Examinations: Is it Here to Stay?
Staff that support exam administration typically reside within the registrar’s office. The specific activities they support or are involved in vary from institution to institution but can include advising on regulations, scheduling examinations, coordinating logistics (from assigning proctors for supervision, printing exam papers to ensuring accommodation needs are met), academic integrity and various aspects of support. Sometimes these tasks are centralized through a specific office or are divided within the registrar’s office.
Regardless of the division, they also require intersection with other stakeholders on campus. The main actors include course instructors, students and proctors but also teaching and learning staff, computing services and facilities management. Examinations are a fixture in academia, run seven days a week throughout the term and conclude with end-of-term examinations that encompass thousands of students in a short period of time. Orchestrating the many details involved requires strong collaboration to be successful.
When one thinks about examinations, they may envision a large exam hall with endless rows of seats, students writing with pen and paper, and proctors walking up and down the aisles. This depiction was what most students experienced for the last few decades. However, the COVID-19 pandemic was a catalyst that brought the death of the pen-and-paper exam to the forefront. In 2020, when higher education pivoted online, only a few weeks of the term remained. Exams were right around the corner, so several strategies were utilized, from canceling an exam, transitioning to an assignment or take-home exam, to migrating to an online platform.
Regardless of the strategy employed, we got through the early days and learned from them, and what we believed would only be a short while went on for much longer.
As a result, online examination skillsets and delivery improved and thrived, but there were concerns about academic integrity circling (Eaton, 2020). The rise of suspect tutoring and contract cheating sites seemed to materialize like weeds (Comas-Forgas et al., 2021; Lancaster & Cotarlan, 2021), with many institutions investigating e-proctoring solutions. These solutions sparked student concern over privacy and security; many such cases were highlighted in the media (Flaherty, 2020).
While there were concerns among course instructors and students alike, scaling digital assessments also had other benefits. It was easier to mark exam content (the process could even be automated in the case of multiple choice) and divided among teaching assistants, with grades being submitted sooner. This platform could be deemed more inclusive for students with disabilities (Tai et al., 2023). Overall, students were using a tool they were accustomed to, that they had used all term, not to mention that it provided a means to engage with other authorized content (i.e., coding libraries or financial statements). Engagement with such content is an example of authentic assessment whereby students use material they can expect to use in their future workplaces.
Even though I grew up in the era of the pen-and-paper exam, I cannot imagine writing a three-hour essay exam in this fashion and equate this death to the removal of cursive writing in the classroom (Brown, 2020). Brown (2020) refers to a study at UCLA where students were divided into two groups, one taking handwritten notes and the other digital notes. The result showed that those capturing thoughts electronically had less conceptual knowledge. Interestingly, cursive writing returns to the curriculum starting this fall in Ontario, Canada, with researchers stating, “Handwriting lays down the neurocircuitry to the brain to make meaning, store and retrieve” (Roessingh, 2023).
Over 13 years ago, the Guardian published, “Exams: changing habits may spell end for pen-and-paper tests” (Shepherd, 2010). The article concluded that this change would likely occur 20 years from now due to the required infrastructure and change (Shepherd, 2010). When the world started to return to normal, it was not the same normal we knew before. It was a hybrid space where we wanted to take what we learned but transition to the traditional environment.
It did not work perfectly and required experimentation. On many university campuses, newer buildings might have plugs at every seat and the infrastructure to support large-scale technical examinations, but older buildings did not. Innovative ways to charge laptops were required, as was the knowledge to support different computing environments, while acquiring an inventory of hardware for various contingencies to be ready for any given situation.
Exams are stressful, and losing charge or having a hard drive crash were realities that needed a plan. Some course instructors were early adopters, while others may have been skeptical and worried about connectivity issues and the requirement for plan B’s.
Throughout this period, exam staff had to shepherd in all this change while learning about it themselves. They took an outdated operation (compared to other avenues in the education sector) with numerous paper-based processes and accelerated into the 21st century at rocket speed. Proctors who walked the halls looking for students passing notes or whispering now had to be aware of all the different technologies that could be used unethically.
The launch of ChatGPT disrupted the landscape again in November 2022 and resembled the panic felt around contract cheating and e-proctoring. Those continuing to offer online exams might have thought twice, and a return to more in-person exams may have been observed (Susnjack, 2022). Designing assessments differently with this new technology in mind takes considerable time. Generative AI, of which ChatGPT is part, still feels like a wizard in a box. Usage guidelines have been established at many institutions; some institutions banned it outright, while others are finding ways to redesign and work with a technology that is here to stay (Roose, 2023).
Beyond the exam paper itself, new technologies, the administration of exams themselves are also being analyzed. The needle continues to move toward more sustainable, green operations (Fissi, 2021). Digitalization can be incorporated, for example, with students’ electronic sign-ins and -outs to track a paper-based exam’s start and end times.
This digital footprint is expanding; even things like incident reports can be filled out via a web form and sent to all the stakeholders immediately. Suppose a student needs to leave an exam because they are unwell. It is documented, and the paperwork is automatically distributed to the course instructor and those responsible for reviewing and approving deferred examinations.
The emergence of data in this area and how it can be used to educate, inform or initiate processes is a theme that continues to grow. “Data is the new oil,” according to the authors of the Prediction Machines (Agrawal et al., 2019, p. 43). The security thread or “threat” is also present surrounding online exams (Dawson, 2020); for instance, the use of lockdown browsers and QR codes or watermarks can be utilized for paper-based assessments. The authenticity of the campus card is also being questioned, and there are varying features like holograms that minimize fraud (Carmichael & Eaton, 2023).
Now, when I think of my vision of examinations, I picture a sea of students writing on laptops and proctors monitoring the digital traffic while answering questions on a computer versus walking up and down the aisles silencing whispers. The exam, even essays, would likely be marked by artificial intelligence. Is this digital transformation better, or is a fate similar to that of cursive writing in store?
Agrawal, A., Gans, J., & Goldfarb, A. (2019). Prediction Machines. The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence. Harvard Business Review Press.
Brown, J. (2020). Is This the Death of Pen & Paper? Note Taking in the Online and Offline World. Medium. https://medium.com/digital-society/note-taking-in-a-digital-world-the-death-of-pen and-paper-d0940c6ed3d
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Comas-Forgas, R., Lancaster, T., Calvo-Sastre, A., & Sureda-Negre, J. (2021). Exam Cheating and academic integrity breaches during the COVID-19 pandemic: An analysis of internet search activity in Spain. Heliyon, 7(10), 1-8, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2021.e08233
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Fissi, S., Romolini, A., Gori, E., & Contri, M. (2021). The path toward a sustainable green university: The case of the University of Florence. Journal of Cleaner Production, 279, 1-9, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2020.123655
Lancaster, T., & Cotarlan, C., 2021. Contract Cheating by STEM student through a file sharing website: a COVID-19 pandemic perspective. International Journal for Educational Integrity, 17(1), 1-16, https://doi.org/10.1007/s40979-021-00070-0
Roessingh, H. (2023). Cursive handwriting is back in Ontario schools. Its success depends on at least 5 things. National Post. https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/cursive-handwriting-is-back-in ontario-schools-its-success-depends-on-at-least-5-things
Roose, K. (2023). Don’t Ban ChatGPT in Schools. Teach With it. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/12/technology/chatgpt-schools-teachers.html
Shepherd, J. (2010). Exams: changing habits may spell end for pen-and-paper tests. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2010/aug/18/exams-keyboard-answers-ofqual
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Tai, J., Mahoney, P., Ajjawi, R., Bearman, M., Dargusch, J. Dracup, M., & Harris, L. (2022). How are examinations inclusive for students with disabilities in higher education? A sociomaterial analysis. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 48(3), 390-402. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2077910