Monday, May 01, 2017

Online Testing

Is there an elegant way to administer exams in online courses?

I have no evidence that cheating is greater in online courses than in face-to-face, but I probably wouldn’t.  Intuitively, it seems like it certainly could be.  Anyone old enough to remember the New Yorker cartoon about “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” will know why.  And some faculty still refuse to teach online for that very reason.

Like many colleges, we have a fair number of online courses that require a student to show up physically somewhere to take exams.  That usually means the campus testing center, though I’m told we have informal reciprocity with campus testing centers around the country, so a student taking a class from, say, Ohio could use the testing center at her local community college.  The military also has versions of testing centers that we rely on for proctoring for students who are deployed.

Students often object, though, saying that the whole point of taking an online class is to avoid having to come physically to campus.  I understand the objection, and at some level, agree with it. The problem is that elegant alternatives are hard to find.

We have a lockdown browser that faculty can use to ensure that a student can’t have anything else open on the computer while taking the test.  That works really well if the student only has access to one screen.  But in a time of smartphones and tablets, we can’t assume that.  Even if the computer is locked down, the phone may be right there.  

I’ve heard of systems with webcams that can look around the room where the student is taking the test.  The idea is to ferret out any second screens, books, notes, or other contraband.  But taken far enough to inspire confidence, it borders on creepy.  Assuming that many students are taking online courses and exams from home, that brings a level of surveillance that I’m not comfortable embracing.  It also presumes the presence of people on the other end who are looking at what the webcam is catching, which has to be one of the dullest jobs on the planet.

To some degree, replacing traditional exams with other sorts of assignments may hold the promise of both solving the cheating problem and being more pedagogically interesting or sound.  Depending on the subject matter, idiosyncratic assignments can sometimes be the way to go.  But sometimes they aren’t, and even when they are, they’re often much more labor-intensive to develop.  Sometimes, tests serve a purpose.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a non-creepy (or at least minimally creepy) way to give exams online that makes cheating difficult enough that faculty can have confidence in it?