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Instructors weigh options for exams this semester

From open-book tests to AI-enhanced proctoring tools, final exams will look very different for most faculty members.


With COVID-19 restrictions making in-person exams not possible this semester, faculty and institutions have had to quickly navigate a variety of alternatives, including remote exam proctoring technologies that many are considering for the first time.

Cyprien Lomas is the assistant dean of learning technologies and director of the Learning Centre in the University of British Columbia’s faculty of land and food systems. The centre held an online roundtable with faculty members in late March to discuss alternatives to in-person final exams. “The concerns were: How are we going to do this? How does what we already had planned translate to what you’re telling us our tools are?” says Dr. Lomas.

“We had three options at the time: online exams, take-home exams and alternate assessment, such as no exam or changing the weighting of your assessments,” says Dr. Lomas. Staff at the centre wanted to help instructors feel comfortable with their options, he says, but to also set some realistic expectations. “We were trying to say let’s work together to think about what really fits for you.”

While instructors in his faculty opted for a range of assessment strategies, Dr. Lomas says several have chosen online exams that use an artificial-intelligence proctoring tool. A similar approach has occurred across UBC more broadly, with many instructors changing final exams to take-home or open-book assessments, says UBC media relations’ Matthew Ramsey. However, approximately 10,000 students (out of the university’s more than 60,000 students) will still take proctored exams.

UBC is using the AI-driven Proctorio and ExamSoft platforms for remote proctoring, both of which were used prior to COVID-19, as well as Zoom for “live” remote invigilation. A similar AI tool has been offered to Ontario institutions. Partnering with the provincial government, eCampusOntario is providing access to Proctortrack, an AI-assisted proctoring platform.

“There are many ways to evaluate students’ understanding of course materials,” says Steven Murphy, co-chair of the eCampusOntario board of directors. For programs that are externally accredited or that require specific admissions processes, he says, a formal online exam is sometimes required. “Proctortrack is provided to fill that gap.”

While there are differences across the various proctoring software, they typically share key similarities. They often work in conjunction with an existing learning management system and a webcam is used to monitor and record the exam-taker, while the AI program flags potential student misconduct. An instructor or teaching assistant can then return to the video and review the activity that the program flagged to resolve any issues. Dr. Murphy says that “because all proctoring data is assessed by individual instructors, decisions about academic integrity ultimately remain in the hands of educators.”

Still, the tools have raised some concerns. Some of the proctoring tools “can be pretty invasive,” says Dr. Lomas, noting that they come with specific hardware and software requirements for the test-taker, in addition to a webcam. “We don’t have a lot of control over end users’ software or hardware,” says Dr. Lomas – something as simple as a browser update could cause problems with the proctoring software.

He adds that a student’s test-taking location often gets overlooked as an issue. “We’re bringing an exam into a student’s personal space, which may or may not be constrained. It may be shared with four or five people. There may not be a suitable place to take an exam.”

Anne-Marie Scott, deputy provost of academic operations at Athabasca University, a distance-learning institution, says that a human invigilator supervising the exam over a webcam can help alleviate some of these challenges. “Our students are not fundamentally dishonest. Some things that interrupt student exams are things that are out of their control. They feel they need a bathroom break. Somebody walks into the room,” she says. “If there’s a human being in place, then that can be dealt with there and then – and it can be dealt with compassionately.”

Athabasca has offered ProctorU, a remote human-proctor tool, as an option to its students since 2016. The difference now, says Ms. Scott, is that it “has become the majority-use case.” She says the tool involves “a human being that talks to our students, who helps them get their environment set up, makes sure that they can get in and start the exam.” They “provide in-the-moment support to them as well. We think that’s incredibly important in terms of stress.”

Some universities have decided to not offer any remotely proctored exams this semester, including the University of Prince Edward Island. Katherine Gottschall-Pass, UPEI’s interim vice-president, academic and research, says internet reliability was a factor in UPEI’s decision. “We have students that are not just in rural PEI, but they’ve gone home to a country where they may not have the same kind of access to the internet,” she says.

Instead, they encouraged faculty to use the university’s Moodle course management platform or an alternative means of assessment. She says the response has been positive. “I have heard from some instructors who have really been inspired by having this opportunity,” says Dr. Gottschall-Pass. “People are trying new things and being really creative.”

Dr. Lomas shares in the positivity. “I haven’t been more energized than I have been in the past month in my whole career. I can’t tell if it’s the shock or the work, but at the same time, I have this opportunity just to dream and try out things that previously had been nice to have,” he says. “It does feel like there are a million experiments going on in parallel – in higher ed, in conference spaces, in consumer learning spaces and even with kids.”

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  1. Valentina Galvani / April 29, 2020 at 13:34

    Well, until the class size is small, I can see invigilation with something like zoom. Try a 400 strong section. Also, I am not sure if the remote proctors AI based work well in China for example. Some do not. And my own university is terrified by the escalating costs of these systems, in view of a possible use also in the Fall. Realistically, how do you guarantee no cheating for a take home exam? Have you ever heard the word Chegg?
    In short, we need a massive investment in remote proctor that ensures the validity of the exams.

  2. W. Reuben Kaufman / April 29, 2020 at 16:36

    I assume that “chegg” is an acronym? What does it mean?