AI Means Exams are the Future of Higher Ed
I just finished an introductory statistics course. Why is that noteworthy? Because my first university course was 36 years ago.
I’ve taken courses at 11 different colleges and universities over five decades. I’ve taught college, worked at a university, and sit on one of its advisory panels.
Hopefully that establishes some credibility, because I’m certain we’re about to witness the biggest change to university education in decades.
The Chatman Cometh
Toronto Life recently ran an expose on the explosion in cheating at universities thanks to generative AI. Students can now use ChatGPT to write essays, tests and assignments for them. I didn’t cheat in my stats course; compulsive honesty and a conscience that gets guilty at a pinprick ensured that. But mainly, I didn’t cheat because I wanted to master the subject, even if that meant a less than perfect grade. There were plenty of opportunities to cheat in the old fashioned way (Google) and ChatGPT opened new ones, but I never gave into temptation.
Did other students feel so compelled? I’ll never know. I’d be shocked if none did; the Toronto Life article quotes high levels of cheating (60% in one study) in any given university career. If ChatGPT makes cheating exponentially easier, what’s a poor university to do?
Now what? Universities rely on grades to establish whether you know your stuff. If they can’t effectively grade someone because a machine is quite likely doing the work, is there any way to tell whether a student has actually earned their degree?
There is. It’s called an examination.
Under the Microscope
Professors are already turning their back on conventional grading, including tests, in response to the threat posed by ChatGPT. But that doesn’t solve the problem; exams could. The definition of the word explains its value: “a detailed inspection or investigation.” If you can examine someone’s knowledge under controlled conditions, you can measure their mastery.
Exams aren’t needed to grade things like performance in a lab, where you have to dissect a cadaver or create chemical compounds; ChatGPT won’t hold the blade or mix the chemical cocktail for you. But where cheating is possible, sitting a student down with 300 others in an examination hall removes AI from the equation. You can make people hand over their phones, block or restrict internet access on the computers, and have students answer questions and solve problems using only their brainpower.
If this sounds extreme, that’s unfortunate. Examination like this will become essential in a world where an internet connection means an ability to have AI feed you answers.
Take it a step further
If an explosion of cheating on ordinary assignments and tests invalidates the old-fashioned model, why attend class at all? Online learning showed us that watching a video of a sage on a stage is about as effective as watching one in a lecture hall. Why not take responsibility for your own learning, using the plethora of online sources, and show up at the exam to prove you know your stuff?
That’s sort of what you can already do with challenge for credit. It’s nothing new, but it’s an increasingly popular option, one that could become a new model for accreditation if universities finally realize that AI has made the old classroom-centric model obsolete.
Take it further than a step further
In a brave new world where you’d just need to pass an exam to prove your subject level mastery, which university would you want to get the credit from?
- University of <insert city here>
Cachet is hugely important, and if you can drop — let’s say — $1,000 to write an exam for credit from the University of Winnipeg or $3,000 from Oxford, which would you choose?
Maybe the more expensive option isn’t realistic for you. Maybe you’re not interested in paying the premium, or for the flight to England. Maybe U of Winnipeg, a fine and respected institution, is more than good enough for you.
But what if you could write the Oxford exam in your own backyard? An exam can be transmitted to a computer in Winnipeg lecture hall as easily as it can to one in Oxford. A proctor is a proctor, whether they’re in the Great White North or Old Blighty. As long as you’ve got someone taking the task of overseeing the exam seriously, what’s the difference? What’s stopping you from studying calculus in Manitoba and showing up at a lecture hall at U of Winnipeg to write an exam for Oxford University?
“The University of Manitoba,” is the obvious reply: why would they help another institution take tuition money from it?
The last step further; I promise.
They might, if Oxford paid them to oversee Oxford’s exam. What if Oxford paid $500 a head to U of W do so? That would sweeten the deal, but wouldn’t make up for all that lost tuition, so why do it?
How about if they find themselves forced to?
If it’s too onerous for Oxford to convince U of W to proctor their exam, what’s stopping them from finding a respectable third party somewhere else in town? A justice of the peace? A notary public? Any accredited third party that’s held to an ethical and legal standard similar to a university’s could do the job. In fact, if there’s money to be made proctoring exams, you can bet someone’s going to set up shop to do exactly that.
At that point, the question isn’t why would a university choose to lose tuition bucks to another one, but why would they lose it to someone else?
If this all seems fanciful (Writing exams overseas? Private proctoring? Madness!) consider this: five years ago, bums in seats were considered an essential part of the education process. Then a little bug named COVID-19 went around, and for three years it suddenly became — not only possible — but mandatory to educate 100% online. That’s how fast things can change when they need to.
We took bums out of seats in a heartbeat. We can put them back in just as quickly. The impossible quickly becomes possible once you’re forced to embrace it.