Going high-tech against exam fraud

23 November 2011
pupils passing note to each other during an exam

Who doesn’t worry about exams? Discussed frequently in IET Forums, they elicit strong feelings as people become desperate for qualifications. But desperation can lead to cheating and, even worse, fraud, reports Ralph Adam.

As someone who has supervised many university exams, I am constantly amazed at candidates’ efforts to get that elusive diploma - sometimes going to great lengths for an advantage that may show little return. Recently, a smartly-dressed MBA student microformed her notes, hiding them under the question paper only to choose the wrong moment to sneak a look - just when an invigilator was passing. Worth the effort? She could have put it to better use and would probably have passed the exam anyway, instead of being disqualified.

We assume that, as long as exams have existed, candidates have cheated. Nowadays information technology allows people to challenge security measures by, for example, communicating with confederates outside the room or paying others: in 2010 a Warwick student was jailed for employing an impersonator after an eagle-eyed invigilator queried an identity photo. Electronic equipment suitable for exam fraud is openly advertised on the Web with videos illustrating tricks for fooling examiners. Universities are increasingly employing ‘integrity’ specialists, while the biometric testing of candidates is being discussed now that ID verification software is available.

Cambridge ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) papers seem particularly incident-prone and the University takes extreme measures to protect them. There are stories of papers being seized and subsequently ransomed by armed South American guerillas, rats eating consignments of papers, questions being given out on Greek TV and, even, of a parrot, also in Greece, flying through an open window, stealing a question paper and dropping it on a passing teacher who then read out the answers! Indeed, Greek exams have had to be flown by the RAF from military airports, parachuted-in by the SAS and kept under armed guard in secret locations (one rumour suggests the Parliament building) under the eyes of elite army regiments.

A Dutch research team suggests that, while fraud is common in traditional paper-based exams, it is even more likely in online ones which are often tied-in to electronic learning management systems (LMSs), many of which require Internet access. During exams it is impossible to continuously monitor every PC: for example, technical problems need resolution and scripts require collecting. Many tricks have been tried - ‘skinning’ (hiding or disguising chat and instant-messaging programs on the desktop or in the task-bar), uploading questions and sharing answers on students’ home pages through FTP programs, emailing information, ‘spoofing’ a computer’s IP address, adding chat features to the LMS or, even, creating a dummy website resembling the question paper (with answers). Such programs are unlikely to be spotted by invigilators.

The Dutch team suggested a network security model incorporating several digital remedies for countering exam cheats. These include checking which programs are running, measuring traffic levels, monitoring candidates’ screens, searching for, and stripping out, superfluous software, installing upstream firewalls and, of course, training network staff. But cheating is not that common: is such high-tech really necessary?

Related forum discussions
forum comment To start a discussion topic about this article, please log in or register.