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Trend 22 June Jun 2020 0700 22 June 2020

University: privacy and the digital divide spark debate on the technology used for remote exams

Covid-19 has accelerated the digital transformation of universities. But how can cheating during written exams be prevented? The proctoring systems used in the USA are not commonly used in Italian universities. Here are some possible solutions

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Universities closed, lectures and exams ran remotely – this was how Italian academic life dealt with the lockdown. It also accelerated the digital transformation of universities which meant that courses were held online, faculty and students could connect to platforms, solutions were found to ensure that students could graduate and take exams remotely, while ensuring all testing was fair and transparent.

Universities dealt with the examination process in different ways. In Turin, the Polytechnic introduced an in-house solution called Exam to cope with 4,400 oral and written exams under remote video supervision. The Academic Senate is assessing whether to more widely apply this solution for the coming academic year. This is so that “those young people who still have to decide on their futures” can select their courses for the academic year 2020/2021, explained the Polytechnic’s Rector, Guido Saracco. In Venice, after trials run by Paolo Pellizzari, professor of mathematics for economic and social sciences at Ca’ Foscari University, they decided not to continue with proctoring systems. In recent months, the university delivered over 3,500 written exams on economics and management, but it will not make use of such software.

During a boom in e-learning and a prolonged lockdown, students still have to take their exams. But how to be sure that assessments are fair and accurate? How can students be prevented from cheating – from perhaps taking a peek at a smartphone or having a trusted prompter in the room? Thanks to software based on existing technology like eye tracking, facial recognition and biometrics to identify students. Respondus, Proctorio and Examinity are just three of the best known in the USA where this practice is common. Using artificial intelligence, this software can analyse the webcam recording of the exam session to pick up on any suspicious behaviour or noises. The professor is alerted to any irregularity when correcting the papers.

It is quite easy to get around proctoring systems using a cable, a monitor or a plastic film with notes that can be stuck on the screen. They are also not without issues like the digital divide and privacy

So, is everything perfect? Not really it appears. “We banned their use in Pisa” explains Antonio Cisternino, a researcher in computer science at the city’s university. “Right from the start we set ourselves up to provide remote lectures. It took us four days to make almost all our courses available online. But I must say that all Italian universities responded well.” In Pisa, over 53,000 users connected over the last 90 days, more than the 47,000 enrolled in degree courses. Reports on the sessions showed that students were paying attention and chatting together with over a million messages sent.

So, what about proctoring? “These systems can be got around quite easily, by using a cable, a monitor or a plastic film with notes stuck to the screen. There are also other issues like the digital divide and privacy. In the first case, some areas of Italy are still covered by ADSL and the system does not provide stable and efficient connections with the risk that the session may have to be interrupted. The use of video and possible bias in assessing students raise privacy issues,” Cisternino claims. But technology has made its mark. “If we are properly organised to use digital channels, then online tests could be a good way to organise exam sessions. We could do a kind of trial run before an oral exam so that we carefully manage the timing of the oral test itself,” Cisternino concludes.

Cisco has also gambled on such solutions working together with Luiss Guido Carli university in Rome. Since March 5, the system has been delivering all courses via Webex to around 8,500 students with more than 550 lecturers giving 10,600 virtual interactive classes for a total of 17,000 hours and 75 million connections. “We were suddenly faced with a challenge: to transform physical attendance at university into a digital attendance and provide the same learning experience,” explains Michele Festuccia, the senior systems engineer manager at Cisco who oversaw the project. A key element was the collaboration with the start-up Keyless based in Rome and London who developed a biometric authentication technology to identify students during exams.

Using algorithms, an image of the student is saved and encrypted on a proprietary server and is then used for future access. “The aim is to broaden the audience and overcome physical barriers but at the same time we are not thinking of transforming the university into an online institute. Our goal is to make content available to students and faculty online also outside the university,” Festuccia continues. Maintaining the same intellectual integrity. To prevent copying and cheating, instead of proctoring systems the university decided to develop with Cisco a protocol of rules, regulations, codes and technologies that aim to achieve the same result: ensure that exam conditions are fair and respect privacy, which also depends on what technical equipment is available. “Many users have devices that are not updated, are missing software or they connect via mobile and data connections. Such conditions make the use of more complex surveillance software unstable,” Festuccia points out.

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