Coronavirus: Universities use artificial intelligence to deter cheating in online exams

Online exams at SMU have been running from April 13. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - At least two universities here are turning to technology to send students into a "lockdown" when they take online examinations, to prevent them from cheating.

At the Singapore Management University (SMU) and Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), students' web browsers are locked, such that they will not be able to access other websites or capture screenshots until they have completed the exam.

Before the exam, students will also have to take a short video of their location, such as the room and study table.

During the exam, they use a webcam to record themselves. An artificial intelligence algorithm will track their eye movement to determine where and what they are looking at, to deter cheating.

After the exam, only the course instructor can review video recordings and the results of the proctoring or invigilating session and video segments. Potential violations, if any, are then flagged.

Universities in Singapore have moved to online lessons and exams due to the coronavirus outbreak and circuit breaker measures.

Online exams at SMU have been running from April 13, and will end on Friday (April 24). SIT's exam period is from April 27 to May 8.

In response to queries from The Straits Times, an SMU spokesman said on Thursday (April 23) that the university has been using this tool for online exams since two years ago, but on a much smaller scale.

At the time, it was "mainly to support students who were unable to take their tests on campus, such as due to illnesses or participation in overseas competitions".

"We have scaled it up this round to facilitate online undergraduate and postgraduate closed-book exams. More than 100 instructors have used the tool in the past week," said the SMU spokesman.

The Straits Times understands that so far students have had no issues with their webcams, and there have been no requests for equipment support.

Associate Professor Lieven Demeester, who teaches business modules at SMU, said he used the tool for the first time at the start of the month to conduct a 2 ½ hour exam for 40 students.

"I gave them instructions in advance on what I wanted to see in their videos - my own view of what I think is a secure work environment. I asked them to show the underside of their tables and chairs, and they also had to film their pockets so I could make sure they didn't have anything in them," Prof Demeester told ST.

After the exam, he scrolled through the videos for all 40 students, which took him about 1½ hours. There were a set of thumbnails, or pictures of students taken at various intervals, he added.

"I don't watch every second of every video. The program identifies major changes and highlights parts where someone is moving or someone else comes into the frame, but these are rare occurrences."

He noted that the tool was an effective deterrent for cheating that also provides a mechanism to follow up on potential breaches.

"When the camera is on you, if you're looking away from the screen, its very visible. In a classroom, there's usually only one invigilator, and you can never be looking at every student all the time. But here, we can, even though it's after the fact," Prof Demeester said.

He noted that students looking away from their screens may not necessarily be trying to cheat.

"You'll have to look a bit closer at the video to see if it re-occurs or if there's a pattern (of them looking away). But I've been lucky, none of my students have shown such behaviour."

The SMU spokesman added that mock tests are created before the online exam for students to prepare themselves and their laptops in advance.

Follow-up IT support is also available to students who have difficulty with their set-up.

The spokesman noted that the tool "is by no means a guarantee against acts of cheating, just like in normal exams and graded assignments".

"Typically, instructors are mindful of this and will take special care to set questions that can minimise cheating and to spot suspicious similarities in answers for further investigation."

A National University of Singapore spokesman told ST the university has put in place measures, such as online proctoring, to preserve the integrity of online assessments.

"Students have been reminded of the serious consequences, including suspension or expulsion, if they are found responsible for any academic misconduct," the spokesman said.

Besides measures to prevent cheating during online exams, universities here also use software to check assignments that are submitted online.

ST understands that the Singapore University of Social Sciences, for instance, uses a plagiarism checker software to check online assignments.

The Singapore University of Technology and Design does not have any online exams for this term.

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