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COVID-19 has impacted the continuity of industries and sectors globally, and the education sector has been no exception. The health emergency and the ensuing lockdown have caused massive disruptions in universities and colleges’ established academic schedules. Semester and entrance exams, and assessments, have been postponed without clarity on the road ahead for all stakeholders. The development could have a long-term impact on the future of students who are precariously placed and risk losing their academic year.
Reports of postponement of examinations and academic schedules have become regular features on the daily news. Governments are caught in a catch-22 situation where they have to safeguard students’ future while ensuring their health and safety in equal measure. Such conundrums have rarely been witnessed in the recent past.
The UNESCO indicates that the educational continuity of over one billion learners has been impacted globally by the COVID-19 crisis, in 123 countries, which is a whopping 62.3 percent of all enrolled learners. The disruption has been genuinely total and unprecedented. While concerted efforts are being made to bring a semblance of normalcy to the affected sector, much remains uncertain as the situation evolves continually.
The nature of the challenge mandated reaching out to key stakeholders of the sector to understand their problems, current levels of preparedness, and how they were bracing up to operate in what could be a new ‘normal’ for the foreseeable future. Therefore, Mercer | Mettl set out to conduct the ‘State of Online Examinations Report 2020’ to examine the attributes that could enable industry stakeholders to expedite the transition to the online ecosystem and probed facets that shape the choices in zeroing in on online platforms for giving assessments.
We reached out to over 500 senior industry stakeholders, including deans, HODs, and other such vital decision-makers in India and across 17 countries to understand the industry constituents’ strategies in dealing with the crisis. We also wanted to gauge the challenges faced by colleges and universities in adopting new-age mediums for conducting assessments.
The survey results revealed some fascinating insights on the precise quantum of the disruption, the industry’s views on embracing technology, and its wish-list from online service providers that may enable a faster transition to the online ecosystem. The survey results underlined the lack of preparedness among stakeholders in mitigating disruptions, which stems from over-reliance on traditional means of conducting examinations and assessments.
While the education sector has found the going tough, stakeholders have exhibited noteworthy resolve to maintain continuity by harnessing technology. ‘The Mercer | Mettl State of Online Examinations Report 2020’ has brought forth several such trends that are likely to shape the immediate, medium-term and the longer-term course of the education sector.
1. There is disruption across the board in conducting semester and entrance examinations
The ongoing COVID-19-induced disruption has spared no examination or academic schedule. The impact of the disruption has been felt across the board. 90% of our survey participants from India and across 17 countries have reported disruption in their semester and entrance examinations, which underlines the global nature of the challenge faced by the education industry. Over 54% of them have reported disruption in both semester and entrance exams. Also, 33% of participants have indicated an impact on their semester exams’ schedule.
2. Center-based entrance exams are still overwhelming favorites
Center-based exams continue to be mainstream and the first choice of academicians, which can be attributed to the significant disruption in the established schedules to conduct entrance examinations.
Center-based traditional exams require students to appear at the examination center, which has not been possible after governments mandated lockdown factoring in the safety of their citizens. About 58% of our survey participants have either been conducting computer-based entrance examinations at physically invigilated centers or employing the OMR-sheet format by using pen and paper at a physically invigilated center.
3. Center-based semester examinations are still preferred
Semester examinations are usually conducted at a smaller scale and involve fewer students than entrance examinations. However, this seems to be the only difference for industry constituents who, much like entrance exams, prefer to conduct center-based semester examinations.
38% of participants in our survey have suggested employing traditional means to conduct them. While the percentages are somewhat lower than those of the entrance examinations, these are serious figures factoring in the number of students being impacted by the disruption.
4. Universities and colleges intend to continue with their semester and entrance exams despite the disruption
While the education industry has been ill-prepared to deal with any unforeseen disruptions, such as the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, it must equally be commended for exhibiting tremendous resilience in a short span. More than 82% of our survey participants have reported that they have either already shifted their examination processes online, or are making the much-desired transition. Only close to 18 percent of participants prefer to wait for a new set of guidelines before making an informed decision.
There seems to be an understanding that the ongoing disruption may continue to fester for a longer duration than previously assumed. Therefore, keeping up with academic schedules appears to be a necessity and not a choice.
5. Most educational institutions have either shifted or are planning to shift to online modes of exams in the immediate future
There is no denying that the education sector has mostly been caught off-guard and inadequately prepared to manage the disruption. However, there is a palpable urgency among education industry stakeholders to make a quick transition to the online ecosystem. Our survey participants have overwhelmingly reported (85%) their willingness to immediately implement online exams at their centers. Almost half (48.81%) of survey participants have already incorporated online solutions at their institutes. Stakeholders are not only seeking internet-based solutions to make the desired transition but are already geared up to undertake the change. Stakeholders seem to understand the need to make the transition quickly and efficiently.
6. A large number of educational institutions have no prior experience in conducting online examinations
Education industry stakeholders have overwhelmingly preferred traditional means of conducting exams. Over the years, as technology made way to different industries and sectors, revolutionizing processes and bringing about a sea change in their viability, education, unfortunately, has largely remained untouched. Industry stakeholders have preferred to rely on traditional means. They believe it offers them better control over the examination management process and enables them to negate any possibilities of malpractices during examinations.
Academicians have also been generally apathetic to technology, which has contributed to the current state of affairs. The lack of exposure to online examinations is overwhelming and visible across the board. Over two-thirds (77%) of our survey respondents have reported having never conducted an online entrance examination. As mentioned above, institutions have typically preferred traditional means and have, over the years, not experimented with established processes for varying reasons.
Only 34 percent of the participants have reported using online means for semester examinations. The percentage declines further when concerning entrance exams (23%). The findings indicate that the broader education ecosystem is yet to fully integrate its processes online.
7. Preventing cheating and easy accessibility are pressing concerns in exploring an online exam solution
Educational institutions remain rightly concerned about maintaining the sanctity of the examination process as the integrity of the exams is intrinsically linked to the institution’s quality and prestige. Semester and entrance exams are a measure of students’ learning and aptitude, the ability to understand concepts and facts and interpret information. Both these exams are critical in their ways as entrance exams ensure quality admissions into institutions and semesters evaluate students’ progress that eventually accords them with degree certificates. They are prepared to embrace online modes to give examination but believe cheating prevention as the most pertinent challenge in zeroing in on an online examination solution.
There are other concerns too. Industry constituents expect the online solution to provide a seamless interface, requiring minimal training and familiarization, enabling all students to partake in the process, with similar comfort levels. Students from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds are part of mainstream education and routinely take exams from remote locations to compete to receive higher education. Intermittent internet connectivity and accessibility to online platforms are obvious hindrances for institutions to give such tests – a concern that has reflected in the survey results. Over 63 percent of participants have listed accessibility and connectivity in remote areas as the second most important challenge in their quest to digitize exams.
8. Robust candidate authentication systems and strong lockdown mechanisms on test browsers are essential parameters for measuring an anti-cheating solution
Cheating remains an all-pervasive concern, irrespective of the examination type. Cheating in any examination raises questions on the institution’s credibility and puts the examination results under the scanner. One such instance can permanently damage the reputation of any center of education.
Therefore, industry stakeholders rightly require robust candidate authentication systems to ensure that the right candidate appears for the exam. Such a system would ensure the validity of the examination and also maintain the sanctity of the process.
The challenge of ensuring that candidates do not access the internet to surf for answers is another concern as academics can not physically invigilate internet-based tests. Therefore, stakeholders want a platform that enables them to lock down candidates’ exam browsers and deny them access to external websites or apps on computers.
Our survey participants have also highlighted these concerns. As many as half of our survey respondents (50%) have listed robust candidate authentication systems to avoid impersonation as a critical concern. The ability to lock down candidates’ exam browsers and access to external websites or apps on computers have been selected by over 46% of participants.
They have also listed data safety as an important concern in choosing an anti-cheating solution, with growing concerns on data breach and privacy issues.
9. Robust anti-cheating technology and the ability to support diverse question types are important factors in evaluating an online solution for semester examinations
There are several reasons why anti-cheating technology and the platform’s ability have ranked high in the stakeholders’ wish-list. Semester exams are crucial in determining students’ learning and determining whether they possess the requisite skills to be promoted to a higher level of education. Any shortcomings in assessing students’ abilities can have consequences.
Also, educational institutions offer a range of academic courses. A college can offer arts, science, mathematics, sociology and many other such subjects. Therefore, semester examinations consist of varied question types, ranging from multiple-choice questions, bar and graphs, essay-type questions, diagrams, and others. Institutions believe that these diverse requirements for conducting tests are better addressed with traditional means. They also perceive that conventional ways offer students with greater ease in attempting varied question formats. Therefore, they seem apprehensive of the online platform’s ability to support diverse question types. Participants in our survey have highlighted this concern.
10. Strong anti-cheating technology and robust platform to manage exams at scale are concerns in evaluating an online solution for entrance exams
Entrance examinations assume significance simply because they are the entry-pass to an institution. That institutions place a premium on the process of evaluating students is justified and reasonable. An educational institution’s reputation is mostly hinged upon the quality of its students, therefore maintaining the sanctity of the exam and ensuring applicants do not cheat in the tests is a prerequisite to taking exams for all centers of higher learning.
Also, these examinations are conducted at scale as a vast number of students compete for a handful of seats in prestigious universities. These tests are also not restricted to applicants from large cities, and, often, students from distant corners of the country apply for admissions. Therefore, strong anti-cheating technology and the platform’s ability to seamlessly manage a large scale are the most sought-after features in conducting entrance exams using an online examination platform.
38% of our survey participants have listed a robust anti-cheating technology as their first criteria in evaluating an online platform. It is followed by the platform’s ability to manage scale with over 22% of participants’ votes.
11. Online exams are scalable alternatives that are immune to disruptions
The ongoing health crisis is a global phenomenon. However, it is not the first or the last disruption to have abruptly derailed all established processes. We have had several instances of some local, other regional and a few global disruptions in the past. The pandemic is merely one example of how a disruption can derail established schedules. These disruptions can have long-term consequences for students and the broader education fraternity. Students may lose their precious academic year – the education sector deals with students and not commodities. Therefore, the need to remain immune to recurring disruptions cannot be emphasized enough.
Technology-enabled platforms can empower institutions to undertake varied kinds of large-scale examinations, without concerns about giving them in a hassle-free manner, insulating them to periodic disruptions.
Such advantages have been favored by survey participants who have listed online exams as scalable alternatives, as the most significant driving factor behind its adoption. 50% of our survey participants have favored online tests for the reasons discussed above.
12. A majority of industry insiders believe that COVID-led disruption would lead to a sustained and long-term shift towards online platforms
The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the importance of using technology to conduct examinations. The over-reliance on traditional, center-based examinations has exacerbated problems caused by the disruption, further delaying established schedules and academic calendars.
The education sector has had a tepid response to adopting technology for varying reasons. Academicians have resisted technology, suggesting center-based exams offer better quality control and real-time invigilation, which, in turn, preserves the sanctity of the examination exercise.
There are some genuine concerns too. Technology has not yet acquired the ‘last-mile’ status. A vast majority of students applying for admissions to colleges or appearing for semester examinations are from small towns and villages where internet connectivity can be a bottleneck. Also, not every student has access to a computer and colleges and universities must provide a level-playing field to all students, irrespective of their financial or social background.
However, the advantages of adopting online examination platforms far outweigh the concerns mentioned above. Our survey results also indicate a broad-based consensus among participants, suggesting that the disruption would encourage the educational sector to make a more definitive shift towards online platforms for giving and taking examinations. Over 58% of all participants believe the disruption would expedite the much-awaited transition to the online ecosystem.
Originally published July 13 2020, Updated December 16 2020
Shashank has been working in the publishing and online industry for eight-plus years now. He has donned many hats and has reported on diverse industry verticals, including aviation, tourism, hospitality, etc. He is currently the senior editor at Mercer | Mettl.
Online examination, also known as virtual examination, is conducted remotely on a computer with high-speed internet. Like a classroom exam, it is time-bound and usually supervised through a webcam and proctor, making it cheating-free, secure and easily scalable.