Online, home-proctored exams: An invisible dagger hanging over students’ mental and moral well-being?

Irrespective of how fool-proof the home-proctored examination is made by using advanced technology, parents would always try to influence students to find the ways around the rules.
NLAT Exam 2020
NLAT Exam 2020

National Law School of India University, Bangalore (NLSIU), considered to be highest ranked legal education institution in India as per the Ministry of Human Resource Development, surprised everyone lately with its decision to hold its own entrance test called the National Law Admission Test (NLAT). It was designed as an online, home-proctored examination.

No sooner did this news come than several petitions were filed by students and parents before various High Courts and the Supreme Court. While the Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand High Courts refused to intervene, the Supreme Court granted a half-baked relief to the petitioners by awarding a stay on the release of results and admission procedure by NLSIU till the Court’s final decision in the matter.

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And today, the Court quashed the conduct of the exam, directing NLSIU to take admissions through the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT).

The NLAT has thrown some serious questions for law and policy makers regarding the ‘feasibility’ and ‘desirability’ of online, home-proctored examinations in general, and specifically in the Indian context.

Till now, several legal and technical issues with respect to conducting NLAT (and other online home-proctored exams) have been raised. Some of these include concerns regarding the problem of accessibility to functional computers and high-speed internet connections, thus limiting opportunities to the “haves” of the Indian society.

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However, one of the critiques that have been overlooked in relation to such exams is the likelihood of undue influence/coercion/abuse by parents on students to take recourse to unfair means for cracking the exam, even if the students themselves feel averse and anxious about doing so.

This is especially so if these examinations a) are not regular exams but are highly prestigious competitive exams which present a once in a life-time opportunity to students to enhance their career prospects, and b) involve teenagers.

Specifically in India, the parents of almost all sections of society for their own reasons, by hook or by crook, want their children to make it to a prestigious university. In the context of the competitive exams held for securing admission to Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the existence and flourishing of Kota in Rajasthan is a classic and oft-cited illustration of the obsession of Indian parents to get their child admitted to a top-ranked educational institution.

People from lower or middle class families see these colleges as a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to change their family’s or their child’s financial and social life. The affluent families too, on the other hand, need their children to study in such colleges to maintain their social status and to seek validation from their high-class and well-educated peers.

The more prestigious the competitive examination, the higher the stakes; and hence, the greater the possibility of this kind of pressure and harassment of the child at the hands of their own family members. This is irrespective of how fool-proof the home-proctored examination is made by using advanced technology, as parents would always try to influence students to find the ways around the rules.

This is so especially given that many such competitive exams involve mere teenagers who are as young as 17-19 years old. Children of this age group, especially in India, are of malleable and of impressionable mind and are thereby prone to succumbing to such parental pressures.

Of course, the possibility of cheating cannot be absolutely denied in any format of examination, but in an online, home-proctored pattern, the chances of cheating simply increase manifold. One simple Google search reveals numerous articles, sharing tips on how to cheat in an online, home-proctored exam. These include: adjusting the angle of the screen’s camera in a strategic manner so that the suspicious and illegitimate elements in the surroundings go unnoticed, using an HDMI cable for screen sharing which is harder to detect than say WiFi-based screen sharing, use of symbols and gestures during the exam to seek external help, etc.

Furthermore, it cannot be forgotten that the people who are better off and come from sophisticated and resourceful backgrounds are in a position to have better access to such tools of unfair means. For instance, their acquaintances are better equipped and educated to offer extra (and unfair) assistance to them. In fact, the legitimate concern regarding cheating has been cited as one of the primary grounds till now for moving the petitions against the NLAT before various courts.

Even in the petition heard by the Supreme Court regarding having online exams for the Common Law Admission Test as well, the Court expressed concern regarding the high possibility of the use of malpractices to ace the exam.

Further, the penalties involved in getting caught are so minimal that they hardly serve as a deterrent. The penalty mostly involves mere disqualification from that given exam. This was the case in NLAT as well. In competitive exams, especially in the Indian scenario, where the ratio of the candidates appearing for the competitive exams and the number of seats is one of the highest in the world, for majority of students trying to cheat and for many parents making the students cheat, trying to use unfair means is a risk worth taking.

This temptation and pressure to resort to unfair means becomes clearer if one goes through the articles published in the past. It has been pointed out that due to the high applicant-seat ratio in India, it may be easier to get into a high ranked college abroad, including the US, than into a top-tiered educational institution in India.

Hence, conclusively speaking, the chances of the use of undue influence, coercion, harassment measures and exposure of children to the need to be immoral to succeed are simply too high to be ignored.

Therefore, NLSIU’s justification to conduct the online, home-proctored exam - the need to avoid having a zero-year and fund loss - is worrisome. Let us please think about this issue, i.e. of conducting online, home-proctored exams in case of prestigious competitive examinations involving teenagers, more seriously; at least as seriously as the teenager applicants and their parents take these exams and these ‘institutions of excellence’ to be.

Priya is an alumna of National Law University (NUJS), Kolkata (gold-medalist) and University of Oxford (UK). Ria is an alumna of National Law University, Delhi (gold-medalist).

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