Asian universities face online assessment hurdles in virus crisis

Universities urged to take opportunity to introduce innovative ‘next-generation’ assessment and boost ‘academic productivity’

April 1, 2020
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Universities in mainland China, Hong Kong and Singapore, hit the hardest and the earliest by campus closures during the coronavirus pandemic, are already months into an unplanned experiment in mass online learning. Now, they are the first to wrestle with a new challenge about to hit universities across the rest of the world: how to get millions of students through their exams at the end of the academic year.

Some global exams in other educational sectors, such as the International General Certificate of Secondary Education and the International Baccalaureate, have been cancelled this spring because of a lack of alternatives for large-scale, in-person testing. However, others have found solutions. The US-based Educational Testing Service said that Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) would be offered as at-home tests in selected areas in late March using human invigilators online to guard against cheating.

Yu Xinjie, head of Tsinghua University’s Online Learning Consultation Board, told Times Higher Education that “relevant proctoring technologies are well established and widely used”, as shown by the GRE and TOEFL moves.

Still, holding a single standardised test is different to conducting assessments over a broad range of disciplines and faculties at a comprehensive university.  

Hamish Coates, director of the Higher Education Division of the Institute of Education at Tsinghua, which has used online learning in lieu of in-person classes since February, said: 2020 may be the first year in history that assessment is harder for universities than for students. Urgent work is under way to advance student assessment to ensure the continuity of higher education.” 

Professor Coates said that, while many university operations hashifted online, testing had generally not. “Here, the world has a problem, for much university assessment has not changed in over 100 years. Much still relies on getting lots of people together in big rooms,” he added.

Professor Coates continued: “The huge 2020 shock to higher education has already spurred major educational reform. Campuses across the world have moved online, faculty have studied pedagogy like never before, and isolated students have nourished their intellects with documents and videos.

“Assessment is a looming bottleneck. With clever innovation, universities can leverage next-generation assessment to make assessment better for all.” 

Hong Kong universities, which were hit with a first wave of closures during anti-government demonstrations late last year, had a first crack at going fully online, including with some assessments. They had suspended in-person classes in November, resumed briefly between the Christmas and Chinese New Year breaks, and then closed again in February. Flexibility has been key in conducting assessments.

Nicholas Noakes, associate director of the Centre for Education Innovation at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), said that last term’s exams in December were conducted in a variety of ways: take-home exams, open-book exams coupled with online invigilation, or assignments submitted online. A small number of exams had to be postponed for a few months.

According to Mr Noakes, online proctoring can involve different elements, such as a lockdown of browsers and applications, continuous screen and keyboard capture of the student's device, live and recorded video of the person in front of the webcam, or "live person proctoring", which involves university staff watching the assessment. There are also protocols to be followed, such as checking students' identities and surroundings via a computer or phone cam.

HKUST is now piloting online exam systems. However, some types of assessments, such as laboratory work, still cannot be easily digitised. In those cases, the university will try to conduct exercises in a way that allows for social distancing or postpone to a later date.

HKUST's aim is to carry out assessment in the same comprehensive way we usually do,” Mr Noakes said.  

He also added that efforts were made to minimise the likelihood of cheating: “This is something that both students and instructors want.”

The risk of cheating is a challenge when students cannot be monitored in person. An at-home computing exam at the National University of Singapore (NUS) went awry when students took advantage of the Covid-19-related measure to cheat, reported The New Paper. Students reportedly managed to do so despite an arrangement where all students had to log in at the same time for the assessment. 

Some of the region’s most prestigious institutions – including NUS, the University of Hong Kong, and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore – have given students a chance to choose “pass/fail” options over letter grades.

While Hong Kong universities have suspended most in-person activities for the rest of the academic year, the situation is less clear in mainland China, where there has not been an official announcement on campus reopenings. Professor Yu said that, for now, Tsinghua’s exams will still be conducted in person if possible, and arrangements are still being made for finals.

Professor Coates felt that this was an opportunity to start thinking of alternatives.

“Now is the time to advance practices and platforms for moving assessment into the Cloud,” he said. The education methods and technology exist to deliver very innovative forms of assessment and to authenticate students’ response. Indeed, the technology exists to make step-change advances in assessment, reducing cost and processing and really improving academic outcomes.  

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Reader's comments (2)

Look on the positives: it's a good chance to assess UNDERSTANDING rather than mere rote knowledge. We have amended the examination papers that were to have been used so that they work as a 24-hour "takeaway" open-book task instead. Project work is to be assessed via videoconferencing: the student will present and demonstrate their work just as they would in a face-to-face assessment, and be able to answer questions as normal. Those with poor quality internet access can record their demo instead, and answer questions by e-mail. We can do this!
Thanks very much for your insights. There are definitely upsides if universities can get online exams right. Joyce