Technology is defined by two primary characteristics: its ability to enhance particular human capacities, and its ability to disrupt the existing order of things. This is true wherever we look, from the internet and its ability to enhance communication while disrupting, say, family life, to the humble hammer and its ability to enhance human strength. This is also true in the case of exams and education, which in recent years have been suffering from the increasing willingness of students to use smartphones and various other gadgets to “enhance” their own skills and knowledge.
That the emergence of “CheatTech” is becoming a growing problem for school systems worldwide was highlighted most recently on Tuesday, when the Report of the Independent Commission on Examination Malpractice was published in the UK. Among its various conclusions, the most startling was the recommendation that all watches should be banned from British exam halls, so as to remove any possibility that a student might cheat using a smart watch. Given that some smart watches are all-but indistinguishable from “dumb” watches, the report’s authors argue that the only realistic way of combating exam “malpractice” is to ban any kind of timepiece.
“It can look as if it’s a time-telling watch and actually, you press a button and it becomes an email-type watch,” explains Sir John Dunford, the Commission’s chairman. “If you don’t ban them all I think you’re giving a very difficult job to invigilators who are looking round an exam room. So I think the obvious thing to do here is to ban watches.”
This might seem like a drastic measure to anyone who hasn’t sat an exam recently, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg, in the UK and elsewhere in the world. In the UK, for instance, not only does the Commission’s report conjure the distant prospect of students one day hiding a device underneath a fake fingernail, but there was also a 26% rise in cases of cheating using a smartphone in 2018, while in 2017 there was a 25% increase in overall cheating, fuelled largely by smartphone use.
Smartphones are the obvious dangers to monitor for examiners, but what’s interesting is just how creative recent technology has allowed would-be cheaters to become. In the United States, there are recent reports of students using tiny earbuds to listen to content transmitted to them from their smartphones in their backpacks, while other students admit to using summarizing tools to condense a long piece of writing found online into a shorter text, which is then submitted as their own original coursework.
And CheatTech doesn’t stop with earbuds. In 2016, Thai university students were caught using spy cameras in their glasses to transmit exam questions to remote accomplices, who then sent corresponding answers to the students’ smart watches (something very similar was attempted in Singapore in the same year). In China, pupils have even go so far as using fake fingerprints to pass themselves off as students who want to cheat in the national college entrance exams. And in some kind of James Bond-themed espionage fantasy, a small minority have also used electronic erasers that can transmit questions and receive answers.
Exams are supposed to be an objective measure of a student’s ability within a particular subject. But in the cases above it’s clear that they aren’t, and that they become more of a measure of an individual’s willingness to cheat and his or her ingenuity, as well as perhaps an indication of the intense pressures that many students increasingly face in a corporatized, numbers-fixated education system.
On top of this, they also become an indication of the speed at which technology is advancing, for would-be cheaters and their examiners alike. For instance, Chinese education authorities have taken to using facial recognition systems, fingerprint verification, metal detectors, drones, and signal jammers in a bid to thwart unscrupulous pupils. Yet the thing is, given the rate at which the industry is throwing up innovations, it’s likely that students will soon find new technological ways of artificially boosting their exam scores. And so the arms race will continue.