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Online vs paper-based exam: Which is better?

By Anjuli Bhargava
December 30, 2015 14:39 IST
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'Parents, grandparents, candidates, academicians -- almost all the stakeholders have a view on it, so any change is hard to bring about.' Anjuli Bhargava reports.

In a world that seems increasingly dominated by technology and computers, tests in India continue to be primarily paper-and pencil-based. Computer-based testing (CBT) accounts for only around 20 per cent of the total testing done in India.

CBT is not just about taking an examination on a computer; it also involves changes in the way examinations are scheduled, designed, conducted, monitored and evaluated. The candidate downloads the test paper on a scheduled date at a particular time and answers it usually at a secure test centre. On finishing the test, the candidate is asked if he is ready to end the test and the system (and technology) takes care of the rest.

CBT has many advantages and is the most prevalent testing method in most developed countries. There is increased security at test centres where photo identity checks and digital signatures are required.

To minimise cheating, there are CCTVs at the centre, live proctoring and restriction on the use of electrical devices. Test owners also benefit from increased security in the delivery of the exam -- test papers are not printed and physically delivered but are digitally encrypted and uploaded to test centres on the day of the exam.

"Leaks, which often occur at the source, are minimised," says Soumitra Roy, general manager, global business development, Prometric India. "Often leaks happen at the printing press. This is avoided completely since the test is never printed."

There are also clear benefits for exam candidates with CBT.

Under the pen-and-paper system, huge numbers of candidates may have to travel miles to reach a particular exam hall at a city centre on a particular day.

'With the recent floods in Chennai, for instance, it was impossible for candidates to reach test centres for examinations that they were preparing for, for over a year or even two years. This kind of thing can be avoided," adds Roy.

With CBT, the examination can be flexible and scheduled as and when the candidate is ready to take it. Often, the window for taking the test can be between one week and three weeks.

Proxy exam takers are unlikely to get by. "High-stakes exams usually use biometric technology and take either the fingerprints or even the iris image to identify candidates, so it is unlikely that someone else will take the examination in the candidate's place," says Divyalok Chetan Sharma, director, client development, Pearson VUE.

But in India, many educational institutions and colleges are yet to adopt CBT. Typically, they try and finish testing in one or two sessions. Even large-scale examinations such as the All India Pre-Medical Test are each held on a single day in one session and are paper-and-pencil tests.

One of the main problems in implementing CBT is that it requires a change in mindset.

"Parents, grandparents, candidates, academicians -- almost all the stakeholders have a view on it, so any change is hard to bring about," says Sharma of Pearson VUE. Examinations are a highly emotive issue, involving the entire family in India.

It is the fear of the unknown and the untested.

"Often, people choose to remain in their old habits," says Roy of Prometric India. "It is what they know, and change is viewed as a risk. They would rather deal with the same problems they have become accustomed to managing rather than explore new technologies."

Sharma says that educators sometimes think and ask whether some special training is needed to take computer-based tests. "These tests are designed to be intuitively interactive. The test itself tells you what to do next," he adds.

While CBT may reduce the chances of cheating and will result in a fairer outcome, increased complexity scares academicians. For instance, if an examination is allowed to be taken for two weeks, two sessions a day, it means designing -- and equating -- 28 question papers.

"This is perhaps the biggest deterrent since everyone feels that the question paper given to the other set was easier than the one they had to contend with," says a former advisor to the erstwhile Planning Commission. "It's a typical human reaction."

This in turn can lead to serious legal issues. There is no denying that in most countries where testing is evolved, there are also that many lawsuits by candidates, who feel the test was not fair or legally valid.

CBT is also the more expensive option, which often deters many government institutions from adopting it since they operate on the principle of the lowest bidder for test delivery. It is cheaper to do fewer sessions of testing and with pen and paper.

Companies like Prometric, Pearson VUE, TCS and other such test delivery firms tend to be above the budget of many government-run mass examinations.

"In India most mass examinations means that lakhs of students take the test for a small number of seats. By testing lakhs of students on a single day in just one or two sessions, in a way, you cut corners despite the fact that you are dealing with the careers of millions. It's not the ideal way to test," says the former advisor.

It is not as if those involved are unaware of the advantages but some of these factors have prevented them from taking to CBT so far. But eventually CBT will overtake pen-and-paper tests as it has in many developed countries.

Lead image published only for representational purposes. Photograph: Penn State/ Creative Commons

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Anjuli Bhargava
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