Integrity of online exams is a shared student obligation.

University faculty in Africa will have to adopt technological solutions that prohibit cheating, embrace teaching pedagogies that stretch beyond understanding to creativity, and enforce academic integrity policies to curb cheating in online exams assessments, said Faith Maina, professor of curriculum and instruction at Texas Tech University in Lubbock in the United States.

Speaking at a webinar organised by the University of Nairobi’s department of animal production recently, Maina challenged university faculty members to embrace innovative online assessment techniques that limit students’ cheating.

Maina, who has taught online courses for more than 20 years at institutions of higher education in the US, said that online teaching and learning is the future of higher education, and universities should, therefore, improve mechanisms to fully embrace it, including in online exams assessment.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many universities in Africa to transition to online teaching and learning to continue engaging students to meet learning outcomes. This has led to institutions of higher education increasingly adapting to digital modalities to offer a flexible and resilient education system.

Integrity issues cause hesitance

While many institutions are still grappling with teaching pedagogies, infrastructure challenges and other online teaching conceptual difficulties, the idea of online assessment remains a challenge. In many of the universities where blended and online teaching is practised, many faculty and university administrators are reluctant to offer online assessments, due to integrity issues.

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According to a study survey on the impact of COVID-19 on teaching models and the supply and demand of faculty in the East African community that Education Sub-Saharan Africa and the Inter-University Council of East Africa released early in 2023, only 16% of examinations were administered online.

Anthony Mbithi and Salome Guchu, the study’s principal investigators, found that the critical challenge to online exams  assessment was how to ensure exam integrity where students were not in breach of any conditions outlined in their institution’s exam conduct policy. Further, the researchers found that the lack of higher education institutions’ preparedness for online learning weakened the likelihood of online assessments.

“For institutions that had never introduced online teaching, it looked like an entirely new way of thinking … yet it was a rapid evolution happening that needed skills and infrastructure to adapt,” Maina said at the event, hosted at the end of May.

She urged universities to invest in technological infrastructure and skills, especially for faculty, to prepare them for online assessment. For instance, she said, disabling some functions could curb cheating, such as the copy-and-paste function and also using software that can help deny access to some apps like messaging, or disabling screen-sharing could help reduce the chances of cheating. Additionally, she suggested e-proctoring, whereby faculty are alerted when students try to cheat. Authentication verification, in turn, helps curb impersonation.

Investment in technology recommended

“Technology solution is really about policing the student … it can be expensive and could also have privacy issues for students, but it is necessary to curb cheating,” she said.

For pedagogical approaches, Maina suggested teaching that encourages creativity, analysis and application of knowledge as espoused in the upper cadre of Bloom’s taxonomy so that students can use information in new ways. This includes interpretation, classification, making comparisons, paraphrasing, and discussion.

“We normally don’t go beyond remembering and understanding which are very basic and, for that reason, can encourage cheating. If we ask students to apply knowledge, they will be different in the way they respond to assignments … it ensures that students think beyond what was taught in the classroom, and it is not possible for [them] to copy when they are asked to apply knowledge.”

Maina also asked for continuous assessment as opposed to summative assessments at the end of the teaching term.

“Assessments should be progressive to help follow the progress of the student. The essence of assessing is to check the achievement of learning objectives … continuous assessment is a deterrent to cheating.”

She further urged universities in Africa to have academic integrity policies in place that are enforced to curb cheating in exams. “Many students may not even be aware of their institution’s integrity policy … universities are not doing enough to enlighten them on this.”

Maina called for regular sensitisation and training of students about academic integrity and the dissemination of manuals citing details of examples and their consequences. “We can maintain the honour and respect for online exams assessment through shared responsibility for academic honesty.”

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