The inception of COVID-19 has drastically changed the higher education landscape all over the world. Many colleges, universities, and institutes of national importance have already started the online mode of evaluation in the place of pen and paper, as have examination bodies at the central and state level. Examination bodies at central and state levels (like the UPSC, CSIR, PSC) can benefit from online exams for preliminary screening in a meaningful and productive way. Higher educational institutions (like the IITs and the IIMs), recruitment exams of government agencies (like the UPSC or the Railway Recruitment Board), proficiency tests of private recruiters for new employees (in the marketing and software industries), and correspondence courses offered by distance education universities are thinking of adopting the modern method of online system of examinations.
Pros and cons
A clear advantage of online examinations is that it is cost-effective and easily scalable to any number of examinees, wherever in the world they may be. This is important for tests like IIT-JEE and NEET, which are taken by aspirants abroad. Plagiarism checking software can be used to see if examinees have copied the answers. In addition, the prevailing social distancing norms can easily be maintained if examinees take the test at their home.
In spite of the demand for online examinations, there have also been protests against using such services. Many eminent educationists are of the view that this model of assessing students or aspirants cannot be fully foolproof. Examinees can easily appoint proxies (impersonators) to take the test. There are also students who pay other bright students to write the exam on their behalf. This can be caught if the examiner inspects the live picture feeds during the exam, combined with ‘sound-matching’ techniques in which the genuine voice of the examinee (perhaps saying their own name multiple times) is pre-stored in a database, and the sound matched at periodic intervals during the exam.
The picture and voice of the examinees are both available in several software like MS Teams, Zoom, Google classroom, and so on. These real-time feeds, however, are limited to the picture and voice of the examinee, and not to his/her screen. Examiners have no way to see the examinee’s screen (irrespective of whether they are using a laptop or smart phone). Using screen splitting (multiple windows), screen capture, and screen sharing (remote login) techniques, or by snapping a picture, the examinee can easily transmit the questions instantly to proxies through email, Bluetooth or WhatsApp, and submit the answers sent to them as their own.
On the infrastructure side, examinees could face bandwidth constraints if they are located in remote villages or on the outskirts of cities. Availability of devices to connect to the Internet could put some at a disadvantage. For example, smart phones use CDMA, the speed of which depends on the distance of a device from the nearest transmission tower. The most prominent problem is the issue of security of the whole examination process itself. All security issues must be considered to implement a secure online examination system.
Blockchain to the rescue
A Blockchain is an archive that collects, registers and stores the growing list of records using cryptography within a network. It is also a peer-to-peer technology that organises or records time-stamped transactions in such a way that none can modify it without notice by others who are members of the same Blockchain. Each record list, named as block, contains a link to the previous block that is cryptographically hashed, and has a timestamp, and transaction data. This means that any information recorded in the Blockchain ledger cannot be secretly altered, as the whole Blockchain ledger becomes corrupted and tempered. In addition, Blockchain data are replicated and kept on multiple machines to reduce vulnerability. All transactions must be authenticated and linked to the Blockchain network by miners. The mining process is fuelled by a consensus mechanism within the network. The best and unsurpassed solution for continuous authentication, confidentiality and robustness in any security framework is the Blockchain technology. Thus impersonations can be reduced, if not annulled, using a combination of online proctoring and Blockchain.
H. Blankson is a research scholar and Dr. C. Rajan is a professor at Vellore Institute of Technology. [email protected]