Alternatives to Internet Shutdowns during Exams

Internet shutdowns do not prevent cheating in exams. They are ineffective and costly. This blogpost explains why this is the case and what can be done instead. It is part of a SMEX campaign on the harms of this practice on the internet, economy and people’s lives. 

While cheating in exams is certainly not new, digitalization has made it more complex. It is undeniable that exam leaks and communication through mobile devices during exams are an issue. Internet shutdowns, be they partial or total, are however a disproportionate and inadequate response. Far from achieving the declared goal, this practice has a heavy impact on society, economy and development. 

In the Arab region, Syria and Iraq first implemented exams-related shutdowns and similar measures in 2015. In 2016, Iraqi authorities even shut down the internet to prevent cheating by sixth graders. Several countries adopted this tactic in the following years. In 2021, Algeria, Sudan, Jordan and Syria deployed the practice. Depending on the country and the extent of the measure, the economic cost has been massive, as shown in this explainer. The impact, however, is not limited to the economy; all components of society suffer the consequences of internet disruption.

Despite their reach and their cost, shutdowns have proven to be an ineffective measure. Even with sweeping measures, instances of leaking and cheating were still discovered and reported. In Algeria, despite the costly shutdowns and extremely harsh penalties for cheating, one student was sentenced to one year in prison for leaking questions in 2020. The following year, authorities charged 77 students. The accusations were of “publishing topics and answers of the baccalaureate exams using remote communication tools.” In Sudan, where already in 2003 hard copies of exams had been illegally distributed among students, authorities were also not able to prevent cheating. In 2021, the Islamic Studies exam was leaked, leading to its rescheduling. 

As mentioned, there are several better alternatives to prevent both cheating in the classroom and leaks. Governments must, first of all, elaborate strict policies on cellphone use in the classroom. For instance, they could ban cell phones from examination halls. In addition, they should hire specialized inspectors to ensure that students do not cheat. Morocco, for instance, implemented this type of measures, without resorting to shutdowns. In addition, authorities decided that if examiners find a mobile device, the student will be banned from retaking the exam for up to a year. For the issue of exam leaks, educational ministries should create measures to ensure more control over the distribution of copies and limit the number of those that have access to them. All these solutions, however, are only targeting the symptoms of a more complicated issue. As long as the focus is put on memorization and repetition, and less on critical thinking, students will not be encouraged to learn for long-term knowledge and skills. 

Exam cheating began way prior to the existence of the internet, and shutdowns will not prevent it. This tactic is further harmful to education and learning as several testimonials on the impacts of shutdowns submitted to SMEX illustrate. 

‘’Due to decisions by dumb unintelligent officials in Algeria, I was unable to study for university exams or send my projects to my teachers nor was I able to communicate with my classmates in private study groups to exchange documents and information or work remotely,’’ one student based in Algeria write.

According to another testimonial submitted by a Syrian student in 2018: ‘’I was doing a research paper for my graduation project and I was looking in the library documentation that I’ve been using and the government shut the internet down so I had to wait for more than 6 hours to complete a paper.’’ 

Still, even if this tactic were working, it is completely disproportionate and harmful. As explained above, there are alternative tactics with lower impact and cost and are much more appropriate for dealing with exam cheating as they are specific and proportionate to the aim they are trying to remedy. 

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SMEX

SMEX is a registered Lebanese NGO that works to advance self-regulating information societies in the Middle East and North Africa.