Biometric digital identity can preserve remote exam integrity for South Africa’s universities
This is a guest post by Tshepo Magoma, a Yoti Digital Identity Fellow.
The pandemic continues to open several opportunities for digital identity in many sectors, as it continues to change the way we do things, and one sector that has been heavily affected in South Africa is the higher education sector.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed several gaps and vulnerability of traditional universities in an era that requires more flexibility in their operational systems. South Africa has about 23 public universities, and during lockdowns, the education ministry was met with a challenge to save the academic year, while ensuring that COVID-19 protocols and measurements were in place. The move from a traditional mode of teaching to an immediate online learning was a favourable choice.
However, this presented a test to several public universities of their ability to innovate during a dire crisis, and some have been criticized for their efforts.
One of the most common challenges, public universities faced was that students’ lack of devices and issues of connectivity remained a stumbling block for online learning. Most of the country’s public university students are from rural settlements throughout the country, some with no electricity and absolutely no internet connectivity. In most instance, Black students were by far the most disadvantaged for study devices. Despite universities having the budget to buy the devices, the greatest complexity was the logistics to deliver the devices.
While this is gradually being resolved, other challenges like transferring the curriculum of the entire university onto virtual platforms has been daunting. With a typical university having a total enrolment of about 50,000 students (with 23,000 in residences), and a projected staff of 9,000-plus staff and several campuses, with more universities ranked among the largest contact institution in South Africa, they continue to face a unique set of challenges of managing the academic programme within the social distancing prescripts of the COVID-19 era. Given the challenge of students not having access to devices and network accessibility, some universities had considered remote teaching as a supplementary, not mainstream approach to completing the academic year. However, the protracted lockdown renders the online option inevitable. And COVID-19 has pushed online learning to be a common norm across the country, with even private and TVET colleges swiftly adopting the move towards online learning.
While most of the universities have succeed swiftly in moving their operations online and have distributed devices and internet connectivity to their students and staff. The biggest factor remains how to continue ensuring that online mode is regulated, and to slowly phase their staff members back onto campus. This requires alternative ways of thinking, and biometrics have swiftly become a hot topic for the country’s education sector. Many universities are now looking into innovative ways to enable staff member to gain access to campus with reduced physical contact, contactless entry is among the most required services.
The University of South Africa, which is the largest distance learning institution in the country with about over 300,000 students after having tried out online exams following the pandemic, has announced it will render all its future exams online. Most of the COVID-19 daily checks for entry are still manual and can be easily be compromised. Access to buildings is still a challenge to most universities, and requires extensive use of biometrics. Online learning in a country like south Africa poses several challenges such as exams fraud. Cases of student-related fraud during exams were already high even during traditional venue-based exams, and now that universities have swiftly moved to online, this trend may increase because of the inability of universities to monitor the students’ activity online.
Cheating in examinations, and especially in the examination venue, is a global scourge, and the attitude of some students and academic staff, and public perceptions to examination cheating, raise the lid on a moral decay that is manifesting in society globally. The universities now need to implement digital identity technology as one of the significant tools against online examination fraud, and noting the constraints confronting universities, there is a critical need for institutions to mitigate the risk. In not doing so, universities, which are supported by the government and public taxpayers, are committing a fraud on society.
Universities globally acknowledge that cheating techniques today have advanced far beyond notes on pieces of paper, with technology proving to be a significant enabler of examination cheating activities. Recognising the efficacy of smartwatches as ‘wrist computers,’ several universities have taken steps to exclude them from the examination venue. What is interesting is that, notwithstanding the identified potential as an enabler of fraud, universities deal with the use of smartwatches rather differently. For instance, in South Africa, the University of Cape Town explicitly excludes such devices on the person or desk of a student, whereas the University of KwaZulu-Natal bans them entirely in the examination venue.
Stellenbosch University permits students to enter the examination venue with a smartwatch but it then requires them to switch off the device and place it face down on their desk; it adopts a similar approach at the University of Pretoria, but it is further required that the device be switched off and placed on the floor, under a chair and out of the student’s line of sight. Monash University (South Africa) also requires that all smartwatches be switched off and placed in a bag on the floor. The rule at Rhodes University is that students found wearing a ‘questionable electronic device’ are required to clarify its function or remove it.
No institution of learning in the South Africa has adopted the use of digital identity as yet. This is not surprising as the university approach to smartwatches and watches has reached South Africa a little later than its global counterparts: in the UK, as early as 2015, the City University of London had already introduced rules to prohibit the use of all wristwatches during examinations, Goldsmiths University had required that all watches be stored under desks, and Southampton University required all watches to be placed in a clear plastic bag on the desk.
While they can enforce this for venue-based exams, it becomes difficult to enforce these rules for online learning, and online exams. The common challenge for most universities is that they are no longer sure who is accessing their portals or taking the exams, though digital identity can ensure only genuine staff and students are accessing the institutions’ material online.
During an exam, for instance, digital identity with a biometric face match can ensure the correct person is present and readily monitor and moderate during an exam activity. I foresee more universities proceeding with a more blended learning, even post the pandemic Therefore, the universities are challenged to address online learning challenges proactively, openly and honestly. The repercussions of failing to do so are clear, and the ability for digital identity to mitigate this risk has already been tried and tested. It is now the adoption that needs to take place.
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