Tue Dec 08 2020 Michael McQueen

The landscape of higher education has been changing for decades. Just like the traditional lecture format and the university methods of assessment, the concept of the modern exam is outdated. This year has seen exams evolve in a way that may seem futuristic but only serves to deepens the trends of the past.

In both schools and universities, the assumption that effective learning centres around memorisation and rote learning is grounded in Industrial Revolution era thinking whereby prescribed standards would be used to measure quantifiable outcomes. When these processes were translated onto education systems, society ended up with the ‘exam’. Students’ knowledge is tested against prescribed standards, provoking a process of relentless memorisation and practice so that the exam can be passed.

This thinking assumes that a successful student is one who unquestioningly consumes the given ideas and accurately represents them under exam conditions. The need for critical thinking and creativity that is consistently increasing in workplaces and society has proved this process ineffective within the scope of the future. It has been recommended for years that the exam be abandoned in both universities and schools and while many have adapted their assessment processes for the conditions of this year, others have adopted something very different.

As universities have adjusted to the era of isolation and exam season has commenced for many institutions, programs like ProctorU and Examity have come to the fore. Utilising algorithms and Artificial Intelligence technology, these programs act as online proctors for students’ exams, monitoring eye movements, keystrokes and computer tabs to detect potential cheating.[1]

While the concept may sound effective, its execution has seen anxiety spike, trust diminish, and the old-fashioned exam become more complex than ever. For a start, the conditions that students must abide by seem unreasonably strict. If a student so much as looks away from the screen or move their lips to read a question, they risk being flagged for potential cheating. Students have been penalised for abnormal rates of eye movement.

As can be expected, the retaliation of students has been explosive, with young people turning to social media to voice their concerns. While there are some extreme stories of the injustice of some of the programs, the overwhelming response has been one of anxiety, as for many students the burden of the year has now grown heavier during exam season.[2] Navigating the complex guidelines of the programs, such as keeping head and hands visible to the camera, showing the camera the room of the exam to prove that it is not assisting cheating, and loudly explaining to the microphone that one has to go to the bathroom, has proved near impossible for students.[3]

Students described the overwhelming anxiety of adhering to these guidelines which proved to be more difficult and demanding of attention than the content of the exams themselves. This anxiety is only heightened by their awareness of being carefully watched by their own computer which can detect the smallest of eye movements or keystrokes.

Beyond this, the programs potentially embed discriminatory practices into institutions as the technology is prone to fallibility in detecting darker skin tones and registering women with head coverings as men.

While these AI-fuelled processes may sound more futuristic than ever, they are in truth breaking from the trends of the future in more ways than one.

The reality is, that this system is exactly on track with the trajectory of the modern examination. Modernising the exam with efficient, quantifiable and predictable systems is an excellent idea if you are aiming to carry the exam with you into the future. Exam supervision has always been a part of examinations because the process depends on the objective measurement of speed, accuracy and memorisation – to allow ‘cheating’ would be to compromise these fundamental skills. The problem is that these skills are not the ones that the future is demanding of students. Critical thinking, originality, creativity, collaboration and problem-solving are core capacities the future requires of its graduates, and yet these are fundamentally discouraged and excluded by the exam.

The Industrial Revolution-style exam serves no  effective purpose in modern day work and education and supercharging it with futuristic technology only serves to amplify the problem. The exam’s evolution into an AI-monitored system was a natural one, as the integration of technology was merely paving the path of an already beaten track. The problem is that this track should never have become so beaten in the first place.

This failed attempt to modernise is further evident in this technology’s break from the key trend of trust that is so core to our time.

The commercial era we find ourselves in could largely be categorised according to its value of trust between consumer and company. The last 20 years have been characterised by large breaches of trust with organisations like Facebook, big banks and even the Catholic church finding themselves deep in public scrutiny. Resulting from this is a clear value of trust and transparency in the relationships between institutions and the public.

The message that this severe method of examination coveys to students is one of mistrust and scepticism – a clear break in the relationship of trust that will keep modern instructions afloat in the age of transparency. As stated by Tony Featherstone, “Trust is oxygen in the digital economy…”[4] To break the relationship of trust is then to break from the future that depends on it.

The reality is, the ‘exam’ was over a long time ago, but instead of changing assessment processes altogether, some institutions have attempted to force it further into a future where it simply doesn’t belong. Despite its futuristic appearance these robotic exams are simply digging us further into the trends we have spent years trying to abandon.

Exams, especially of this kind of extreme proctoring, are counterproductive to building the skills and trust that will invaluable in the futures of our students. Modernising these exams with technology only threatens to obstruct us from our future more than ever.


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.

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[1] Stewart, B 2020, ‘Online exam monitoring can invade privacy and erode trust at universities,’ The Conversation, 4 December.

[2] Harwell, D 2020, ‘Cheating-detection companies made millions during the pandemic. Now students are fighting back.’ The Washington Post, 12 November.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Featherstone, T. 2018, ‘Why Business Has A Trust Problem’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 February.