Proctored exams have fallen to generative AI

A Turkish university candidate was recently arrested after being caught using an AI-powered system to obtain answers to the entrance exam in real-time.

Source: Student Caught Using Artificial Intelligence to Cheat on University Entrance Test Students wired up to a computer while taking their exams

A couple of years ago (and a few times since) I observed that proctored exams offer no meaningful defence against generative AI so I am a little surprised it has taken so long for someone to be caught doing this. I guess that others have been more careful.

The candidate used a simple and rather obvious set-up: a camera disguised as a shirt button that was used to read the questions, a router hidden in a hollowed-out shoe linking to a stealthily concealed mobile device that queried a generative AI (likely ChatGPT-powered) that fed the answers back verbally to an in-ear bluetooth earpiece. Constructing such a thing would take a little ingenuity but it’s not rocket science. It’s not even computer science. Anyone could do this. It would take some skill to make it work well, though, and that may be the reason this attempt went wrong. The candidate was caught as a result of their suspicious behaviour, not because anyone directly noticed the tech. I’m trying to imagine the interface, how the machine would know which question to answer (did the candidate have to point their button in the right direction?), how they dealt with dictating the answers at a usable speed (what if they needed it to be repeated? Did they have to tap a microphone a number of times?), how they managed sequence and pacing (sub-vocalization? moving in a particular way?). These are soluble problems but they are not trivial, and skill would be needed to make the whole thing seem natural.

It may take a little while for this to become a widespread commodity item (and a bit longer for exam-takers to learn to use it unobtrusively), but I’m prepared to bet that someone is working on it, if it is not already available. And, yes, exam-setters will come up with a counter-technology to address this particular threat (scanners? signal blockers? Forcing students to strip naked?) but the cheats will be more ingenious, the tech will improve, and so it will go on, in an endless and unwinnable arms race.

Very few people cheat as a matter of course. This candidate was arrested – exam cheating is against the law in Turkey – for attempting to solve the problem they were required to solve, which was to pass the test, not to demonstrate their competence. The level of desperation that led to them adopting such a risky solution to the problem is hard to imagine, but it’s easy to understand how high the stakes must have seemed and how strong the incentive to succeed must have been. The fact that, in most societies, we habitually inflict such tests on both children and adults, on an unimaginably vast scale, will hopefully one day be seen as barbaric, on a par with beating children to make them behave. They are inauthentic, inaccurate, inequitable and, most absurdly of all, a primary cause of the problem they are designed to solve. We really do need to find a better solution.

Note on the post title: the student was caught so, as some have pointed out,  it would be an exaggeration to say that this one case is proof that proctored exams have fallen to generative AI, but I think it is a very safe assumption that this is not a lone example. This is a landmark case because it provides the first direct evidence that this is happening in the wild, not because it is the first time it has ever happened.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

2 Comments on Proctored exams have fallen to generative AI

  1. Proctored exams can counter generative AI, but the measures needed are a little extreme. You need to place the student in a Faraday Cage: line the room with metal mesh to stop radio waves penetrating. Even this may not be sufficient, if the student has a standalone device with the AI running on it (not needing a remote server).

    I understand the temptation to cheat, as someone who gets anxious in exams, and so goes to extreme lengths to avoid them. I will select courses, and whole programs, because they don’t have exams. Where exams are unavoidable, I will calculate how much I have to get in the other assessment so I do not have to sit the test to pass.

    Around the time I decided I would give no more lectures, I decided that I would set no more exams. This was for much the same reasons: I did not like doing them, did not like setting them, and did not think they were effective. There are other ways to assess students, which I have been using for more than a decade.

    Also part of this is about giving up the idea we can measure student’s performance to two decimal places. If you only have to put students in a few categories, then there is less temptation to use exams with spurious 100 point scales.

    1. Jon Dron says:

      Excellent, Tom – I could not agree more! Thanks for the link.

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