Unisa's 'open-book' tests 'make it easy to cheat'

02 August 2015 - 02:00 By BOBBY JORDAN

Struggling final-year students at South Africa's biggest university will be allowed to write open-book tests at home in what has been described as an attempt to push through more graduates. The new system at the University of South Africa - announced to staff last month - has triggered alarm bells among academics, who say it will be open to fraud.Selected students will be given 24 hours to complete the assessments by themselves; they need only sign a declaration stating the work is their own.Last month, the university instructed staff to implement "alternative assessments" for all undergraduate "concession students" whose midyear exam results left them just one or two courses shy of obtaining a degree.story_article_left1"Graduation before education" is how one irate staff member described the system."In effect what the university is doing is allowing students to graduate with up to two courses short," he said.Another concern is that the system would allow students to get a free pass for courses they might never be able to pass.In one case a student who failed a straightforward economics exam eight times is now due to write an alternative "open-book" assessment for a much harder course, which is the only one he needs to complete his degree.Previously, students who failed exams had to write a supplementary exam or retake the course.But in terms of the new system, each university department must agree on a specific form of alternative assessment, ranging from assignments or the submission of a written portfolio.According to a circular issued by the department of economics last month, these assessments will take the form of "a timed open-book assessment that will be mailed to students and returned to the lecturers within 24 hours".Staff who spoke to the Sunday Times said they were concerned about the effect on the university's credibility. "The main concern of many academics is that alternative assessment ... could lead to massive cheating," said Professor Petrus Potgieter of the department of decision sciences."A secondary concern is that there has been no workload planning and some staff now suddenly find themselves with a lot of new work, none of it reflected in their performance agreements."story_article_right2The concession system had widespread support among the student body, said Phumelele Nokele, the education and training officer of the student representative council."This is to try and help the students, but obviously not to give them free marks. It becomes too much of an expense if you have to repeat a whole semester because of one or two modules."Since 2009, about 37, 900 concessions have been granted to Unisa students, according to a report released by the university last month.Peter Havenga, Unisa executive director of academic planning, denied the new system would harm the quality of education."What we've realised is that sometimes students get stuck in a module and they build up a block - there is just something missing. The alternative assessment helped them over the hurdle," Havenga said.Although concerns about cheating were valid, the open-book approach was no different from assignments written throughout the year at undergraduate and postgraduate level, he said. If the university had to police every assignment, " we would never award any PhDs, because how do you know it is the student's work?"..

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