February 25, 2021

University exams in the midst of a pandemic: the difficult fit between health security and avoiding cheating


University exams in the midst of a pandemic: the difficult fit between health security and avoiding cheating

Everything at once cannot be. The exams of the first semester of the course have brought the University to a crossroads and caused a student-administration clash that was guaranteed.

On the one hand, The students have been protesting for weeks because, although there are exceptions, in general they have been summoned to take the tests in person in the middle of the third wave of the pandemic, in the middle of January when ventilation is non-negotiable and despite the fact that in many cases they are not even physically going to class. On the other hand, the professors understand the complaints, but they point out the difficulty of controlling that students do not copy, the importance of accrediting knowledge with names and surnames at the University, and they add the purely academic limitations that distance examinations entail.

The solutions have varied between the different autonomous communities, always bearing in mind that the authority of the rectors is maximum and even that the teachers have a lot to say with their subjects. In Madrid, the six public universities defended the need to take the exams in person, alluding to “the strict protocols established” for this. Double coat already throw lines.

Another different case is Andalusia, which chose to give freedom to its centers and these yielded to the students and agreed to do them remotely –Although not all, and many tests have already been done in person–. The discordant note has been put by the new rector of the University of Seville, who has remained firm in the presence, which in fact has cost him the reproach of the mother of a student who is manager of the Virgen de Valme Hospital, to the limit of patients with COVID: “It is not understood that our children are examined in person at the University of Seville (US), Mr. Rector. It should reconsider its position. “In the Canary Islands, which has also given freedom to its two public centers, each has opted for a model: La Laguna will do everything online, Las Palmas, half.

The two parties have their arguments and it seems difficult to reconcile both positions. Universities that have opted for face-to-face support maintain that the protocols ensure that campuses are safe places from a health point of view. The students insist on pointing out that the incidence of COVID is skyrocketing (the Accumulated Incidence at 14 days is 888 cases per 100,000 inhabitants) and they add to the exam itself everything that is around: “It is all the casuistry: the transport to get there to the university, the common spaces, crowds at the classroom doors … “, explains Laura Alcaide, deputy secretary of the Permanent Commission of the CEUNE student organization. In the Community of Madrid, the age group between 15 and 24 years is the one with the highest AI with 1,200 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.

Also the cold. This week the temperatures have risen slightly, but in some communities last week they were doing tests with temperatures below ten degrees (the minimum that the law sets for teaching is 17º). An extreme case, but no less real, is that of María, a student at the University of Granada (UGR) that he had to perform an exam with two degrees and the windows open, which left him diagnosed with hypothermia. The main associations of university students have requested, with uneven results, that the exams be done remotely.

The administration sees a fundamental problem in this modality: that the students copy or that the teachers, more or less consciously, lower the level of demand to compensate for the exceptional situation. “The University has a monopoly on the generation of knowledge certificates”, explains José Saturnino Martínez, director of the Canary Islands Agency for University Quality and Educational Evaluation (ACCUEE). “Part of the work that the University has is to be able to prove that the person knows what the title says they know,” he adds. “And my personal feeling is that last year it was a drain,” he says in reference to the past year, which was closed with distance exams in the middle of the first wave of the pandemic.

And so it is more difficult to ensure that it is not copied, the university professors consulted agree. Without going into assessing the situation due to the pandemic, Manuel Ortega Cantero, professor of Language and Computer Systems at the University of Castilla-La Mancha and head of University and Research at FESP-UGT, explains that he understands university officials. “Last year many students surely approved of the online model that was used and those responsible have thought that it was better to do it in a traditional way,” he elaborates.

In his case, he gives as an example, “in the first year, more than 45% of the student body seldom pass. But last year, while in the first semester [antes de la pandemia] they suspended the usual ones, in the 2nd [con exámenes a distancia] four failed. “And it was not, he assures, because he lowered the level, although inevitably he could not do an exam as complex as other years.

To avoid fraud, teachers are opting mainly in two ways: video surveillance through the webcam and / or students’ mobile phones (sometimes both at the same time) and adapting the exams to the remote mode. “The type of exam is changed. You have to be careful with the time you give students, which has to be adjusted so that there is no possibility of searching for information, and on the other hand we look for questions with clear and easily identifiable statements,” he explains Encina González, professor at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of the Complutense University of Madrid.

In some universities, such as CEU Cardenal Herrera, they use ad hoc programs. A spokeswoman for this center explains that the platform they use for teaching, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, incorporates the LockDown Browser program, which, as its name suggests, is a browser incompatible with other browsers (to prevent them from consulting the Internet). It also includes a tool that uses the student’s webcam to record their activity during the session.

The use of web cameras is controversial, accepts José Saturnino Martínez, from ACCUEE. “There was a debate about the extent to which video surveillance methods can be applied. In the private ones it is being done, in the public ones it is being debated a lot,” he explains. He, a university professor now on leave of absence, lived it last term in the classroom, when his university, La Laguna, sent a circular expressly saying that video surveillance could not be done. “That left little room to control the test,” he says.

The video surveillance did not convince the students either, who felt it as an intrusion into their privacy. There are teachers who demand the use of both the webcam and the mobile phone, simultaneously and with different angles, to cover as much space as possible (“undoubtedly we are going to request that students have their mobile phone at an angle so that the keyboard can be seen the computer “, explains Professor González). The students also denounce that the adjustment of the times to make copies difficult “does not leave room to answer the questions”, in the words of Hada Martínez, from the University of Granada.

Another problem with online exams is the one caused by the digital divide. While many universities have made an effort to equip the most vulnerable students, they have not reached everyone. “We have students without internet or without a computer”, admits José Saturnino Martínez. “Specifically, in the Faculty of Education there are people bordering on social exclusion.”

The student body is committed to continuous evaluation to avoid exams, or at least to reduce their importance. “We already did it at the beginning of the semester to avoid these situations,” recalls Alcaide, who regrets that “there are grades and subjects in which the exams reach 70% of the weight.”

Continuous assessment, through work, small tests or interventions in class, was one of the stakes of the European Higher Education Area, the Bologna plan, but it was never fully implemented. There are several reasons why this has been the case, but one of them is fundamental, explains José Saturnino Martínez: “The student has the right to a final exam. There is a contradiction in the regulations. On the one hand, they tell you that you have to do an evaluation continue; on the other hand, you have to take a final exam. It ends up happening that there is a diffuse barrier between one and the other. What many teachers do is allow small exams that add notes and, if you do not arrive, the final exam. You always have to guarantee a final exam to pass the subject “.

The teachers admit that this whole situation is being a “continuous learning of all” and that it has a bad solution, because something has to be sacrificed, whatever is chosen. In case it was necessary, they remember that they also have to go to the campuses to take the exams and get into the same classrooms. They dislike the debate, although they understand that it is necessary. But, as Martínez, from the Canarian quality agency sums up, it is “unpleasant” to raise these problems because “the mission of the University is to train people, not to be policemen.”

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