Turn off the internet: The countries with a simple solution to exam cheating

It's a drastic step and comes at a significant economic cost - but anything to protect the integrity of the test

Several countries now use internet blackouts to prevent cheating in exams. Getty Images
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Preventing cheating in exams is a problem all over the world but some countries go to extreme lengths to shut it down – by turning off the internet.

Nations including Algeria, Syria, Iraq and Jordan often turn to nationwide internet shutdowns to prevent cheating and leaks.

There have been 611 major internet shutdowns across 56 countries since 2019, which have cost the world $52.99 billion, reports TopTenVPN, an independent VPN review and comparison website.

This year alone, 35 internet shutdowns in 16 countries have cost $1.57 billion to date, the website adds.

If they have to shut down the internet, they are not testing them on skills they need
Senthil Nathan, managing director and co-founder of Edu Alliance

While effective in clamping down on cheating, education experts say nationwide shutdowns are excessive.

“If you're blocking internet, it can disrupt communication, emergency services and critical functions, which can lead to broader social or economic consequences," said Dr Zeenath Reza Khan, founding president at ENAI WG Centre for Academic Integrity in the UAE and associate professor of information systems at the University of Wollongong in Dubai.

"We know we are heavily reliant on internet access so I would consider this an excessive response to prevent cheating.

"Mass blocking of a social service comes with its own disadvantages and it raises significant concerns with broader implications. It's the access to essential services, economic activities and individual freedom."

Failing to address the root cause

Several countries use internet blackouts. Algeria has turned to them for many years to prevent pupils from cheating in high school diploma exams.

In 2021, an internet shutdown was imposed in the Indian state of Rajasthan affecting more than 25 million to prevent cheating in a teacher eligibility test which would help people secure jobs in government schools.

Dr Reza Khan said an internet shutdown addressed the immediate problem of cheating but failed to address the root cause of cheating or to promote a culture of integrity.

“I think the concern would be what are we aiming for? We want students to be able to make ethical decisions because they are the future leaders," she said.

“Blocking internet countrywide is definitely excessive.

“Definitely a more balanced approach would involve targeting measures that do not affect the entire population but are focused on the students."

She said change needed to be brought in early in the education system because, as early as primary school, pupils were asked to do tough assessments or projects, which in reality were done by their parents.

“We are inherently teaching students that the focus is the end product, not the effort," she said.

Shutting down the internet to prevent cheating "is not the most efficient way to combat such an action", according to a report published by SMEX, a Lebanese NGO.

Titled Internet shutdowns to prevent cheating during exams: The Impact on Society and Economy in the Mena region, the report found "internet shutdowns are unjustifiable, harm societies, economies, and the health of the global internet".

"Whatever form a shutdown takes, it harms economic development as well as the integrity of, and trust in, the internet," the report adds.

Are exams part of the problem?

Some academics believe society is too focused on exams and a more balanced approach, with more focus on hands-on work, would be more beneficial to young people.

"Shutting down the internet and asking students to go with the method of the traditional assessment is the issue," said Dr Sreethi Nair, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Abu Dhabi University.

"It [an internet blackout] affects in all possible ways, trading gets affected, the stocks are affected, all the world is connected through different means and the economy is not running based on a country alone. It's based on global format. That has an impact.

"What are we preparing our students for? Why do we have to have exams all the time? Why can't we have hands-on work that the students can do in the class?"

What are the alternatives?

Senthil Nathan, managing director and co-founder of Edu Alliance, a higher education consultancy based in the UAE and US, said assessments had to be designed for the 21st century, not only the internet age, but the age of artificial intelligence and ChatGPT.

"They have to upgrade the faculty members and the curriculum and use the technology in the right way, rather than blocking them," said Mr Nathan.

"We have to go where the Gen Z students go, rather than pushing them back to the 20th century. If they have to shut down the internet, they are not testing them on skills they need for the industry 4.0, they're testing them for knowledge of 20th century and that is the problem."

He said different versions of the assessment could be set so questions were set in a random order, to prevent cheating.

Mr Nathan also suggested a balance between summative assessment and formative assessment. An example of a formative assessment is a concept plan based on a pupil's understanding while an example of a summative assessment is a final project or exam.

He recommended changing the structure of exams so that, rather than multiple-choice questions, pupils would be tested on open-ended questions that would challenge their critical-thinking skills.

Updated: May 31, 2024, 6:00 PM