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Online Education: Challenges and the Way Forward

Last updated:
21st Jun, 2018
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Online Education: Challenges and the Way Forward

In a recent development, UGC has granted the permission to universities to offer degree courses online. Only a handful of top-ranked universities would be eligible to do so and formal notification would be out soon. This permission is intended to increase the enrolment ratio in degree courses and is seen as a revolutionary step for boosting online education.

However, some experts have major concerns with respect to examination, assessment and practical education. Let’s analyse each of these concerns and evaluate the workarounds in the realms of online courses:

Concern #1 – How to Conduct Proctored Exams Online

Ever since this announcement, education experts have been worried about the proctoring of the examination in case of online courses. The sticking point in the idea of conducting online exams is conducting proctored exams. As per UGC guidelines, an invigilator must be present in the examination hall or must be watching remotely through video cameras. To understand this concern further, let’s look at what are the challenges in terms of conducting proctored exams online:

(i) Online Vs Offline Cases of Cheating

Many studies have been conducted on online vs offline cases of cheating and here are the conclusions of some of the studies:

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  • A study by Marshall University on Online Vs Classroom cheating showed that out of 635 students surveyed, 32.1% admitted to having cheated in a live class and 32.7% admitted to cheating in an online class. While there was no significant difference in the percentage of people who admitted to cheating offline Vs those who admitted to cheating while taking an online course exam, more students admitted to inappropriate behaviour in face-to-face classes than in online courses.

Students self-reporting dishonest behaviours for LIVE and Online Courses:

Survey StatementLive classes PercentageOnline classes Percentage
I have cheated on an assignment, quiz, or a test.32.1% (185)32.7% (130)
I have been caught cheating.4.9% (28)2.1% (8)
I have submitted others’ work as my own.6.5% (37)4.4% (17)
I have had someone give me answers during a class quiz or test.18.1% (104)23.3% (91)
I have received answers to a quiz or test from someone who has already taken it.33.2% (193)20.3% (78)
I have used instant messaging through a cell phone or handheld device during a quiz or exam.3.0% (17)4.2% (16)
I have copied another student’s work without their permission and submitted it as my own.4.2% (24)1.8%  (7)
I have knowingly copied passages from an article or book directly into a paper without citing it as someone else’s work.13.2%  (75) 5.0% (19)
I have used a term paper writing service to complete an assignment.5.3% (30)2.1% (8)
  • Does moral judgment go offline when students are online? A comparative analysis of undergraduates’ beliefs and behaviours related to conventional and digital cheating.
    – University of Connecticut

  • Online students engage in less cheating than those in a traditional classroom.
    Black et al. (2008)
  • Face-to-face university students are 14 times more likely to cheat because of pressures they feel from instructors who set date and time deadlines. Such pressures could result in students’ cheating out of panic. According to this hypothesis, they are less likely to panic in online classes where they have more flexibility with their time.
    Stuber-McEwen et al. (2009)
  • Students in face-to-face classes were more likely to cheat, possibly because of their stronger social relationships with their classmates.
    Watson & Sottile, 2010
  • 15.5% of students admitted to cheating in their online courses, compared to 18.4% who admitted to cheating in their face-to-face courses.
    Turner Dille, 2011
  • Students are much more likely to engage in face-to-face cheating than they would in digital forms of cheating.
    Stephens, Young, and Calabrese (2007)

The above studies indicate that students engage in cheating more in the classroom than when pursuing online courses. This is primarily due to several factors like social relationships with classmates, ‘panic cheating’ due to the presence of instructor etc.

Why Skill Development is Important for Success

(ii)Proctoring mechanism and guidelines

Various platforms like Mettl are capable of conducting proctored exams online where the students are monitored via webcams. At UpGrad, we’re already utilizing Mettl for conducting exams for the diploma programs (Big Data and Data Science) as part of our online courses offering in association with BITS Pilani and IIIT Bangalore respectively.

(iii) Sample Guidelines for Candidates:

Additionally, before the candidates start the test, a set of guidelines can be given which require them to close all other browsers except the one on which they are attempting the test. Candidates can log on only with their registered email ids and are required to carry Government issued identity cards for verification. The proctor checks these identity cards and the candidates can begin the test only after the proctor authorizes the candidates. Toggling between windows is not allowed for any reason and it may lead to termination of the test. No calculators/mobile phones are allowed to be carried and the candidates are not allowed to move away while attempting the test. Use of remote access software would also lead to termination of the test.

No one can sit with the candidate and the proctor can ask the candidate through chat to show the surroundings at any point of time. If any suspicious activities are noticed, the proctor can pause the test and warn the candidate. If the candidate does not adhere to the proctor warnings, the test may also be terminated.

(iv) Plagiarism detection in assignments submitted online:

At UpGrad, we’ve built an internal tool using Python to detect plagiarism in subjective assignments for our online courses. All submitted assignments go through plagiarism checks using these Python tools which ensures that cases of cheating are penalized.

Here’s a snapshot of what one of the plagiarism cases caught. It shows the two assignments side-by-side and highlights the changed/added part.

The portion that’s highlighted in red has been deleted by the student and the portion highlighted in green has been added. The remaining part has been copied as it is from some other source.

In addition to above workarounds and lower costs compared to offline exams, following features make the proctoring of online examination easier:

  • Student authentication by Government issued identity card and/or biometric system
  • Team to monitor students on a real-time basis via webcam.
  • Feature to pause/end exam and warn the students.
  • Secure browser to prevent cheating/plagiarism.
  • Easily record and review entire test sessions.
  • Flag suspicious activities automatically.

Students are given strict guidelines about the rules & regulations, malpractice code, etc. when they take the exams for an online course on Mettl which ensures that possibilities of plagiarism/cheating are eliminated.

Concern #2 – Providing Quality Feedback on Assessments

The second major concern that education experts have cited is the ability to provide quality feedback for essay type questions for online exams.

At UpGrad, we’ve built a model where we maintain a pool of graders for each online course we offer. These graders are selected on the basis of relevant work experience and subject matter knowledge. We train these graders to provide comprehensive feedback for any kind of questions which may be asked during exams. The quality of feedback is monitored by our internal team and the graders are constantly provided feedback on their quality of evaluation of the students taking the online course.

UpGrad maintains a wide pool of experienced industry fellows operating an on-demand model like Uber. This model has built specific technology products to support personalised academic support and project feedback at scale.

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The number of projects reviewed at UpGrad is expected to increase from around 8,500 in 2016-17 to over 75,000 in 2018-19. With improvements in process, increase in network size and the effort on technology, we’ve managed to consistently bring down the turnaround time for personalised feedback and doubt resolution despite an increase in scale. In fact, UpGrad’s quality of academic feedback measured via student ratings and NPS surveys has only gone up with an increase in the scale of our online courses.

Don’t believe us? Here’s what some of our students have to say:

  • “I received excellent inputs in the past evaluations on how % of values to treat outliers and need more focus on data understanding in EDA Case study w.r.t removing behaviour variables.”
  • “Like the feedback and will try to follow the improvement points in my next assessment.”
  • “I am happy that the feedback is exhaustive & reassures my thought process as well.”
  • “Great feedback on model evaluation and EDA representation through box plots.”
  • “This is  awesome feedback process, I wanted a way to check if there is room for improvement in projects we submit and this is perfect.”

#Concern 3 – How to Handle Practical/Laboratory

The third biggest challenge in case of online education is how to provide a platform for conducting practical/laboratory work. At UpGrad, we are utilising cloud platforms like AWS for courses in Big Data and Data Analytics to fill this gap of practical work requirement.

Cloud-based platforms like PLATiFi have developed the ability to create virtual laboratory environment for online courses in data sciences, management and engineering. Using such platforms, it would be feasible to offer courses in data sciences, medicine and engineering. Top institutes like ISB, BITS Pilani and IIT Bombay have used these cloud services to create a 24/7 cloud access platform for their management and engineering software applications. Key features include 24/7 dedicated access for all students/faculty, storage, real-time reporting and quality assurance. It resulted in better learning outcomes and cost reduction.

At UpGrad, we also have a vertical called ‘UpGrad LABS’ which is dedicated to sourcing live projects from industries. This initiative invites real and live problems that are holding back startups and corporates from achieving their full potential. Learners of our online courses are then tasked to analyse these problems and help these companies. They work in cross-functional teams of 4-5 with learners from different online programs and build solutions for the company to implement.  
Here’s a look at some of the ongoing industry-relevant projects that are offered to the UpGrad students where they’re required to work in groups and solve real problemsas a part ‘UpGrad LABS’:

The Difference Between Free and Paid Online Programs, Explained!

With the help of efficient online proctoring of exams though platforms like Mettl,  providing qualitative feedback on assignments, and on-boarding a qualified pool of evaluators who could provide constructive feedback on-demand and using cloud services to create laboratory environment online – we at UpGrad have successfully managed to reduce these challenges as a part of our online course offering.
– Ashok Kumar works with Academics and Research team at UpGrad.


Ashok Kumar

Blog Author
Ashok works with Academics and Research team at UpGrad. Prior to UpGrad, he worked in strategy & operations domain in financial services, manufacturing and education sector.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1What changes will online degree courses bring?

The modifications pertaining to the conduct of classes through online mode already began at the onset of Covid-19. The conduct of online examinations was novel. The highly debated issues included how the exams will be conducted online, what malpractices one must be aware of, and how the online mode of examination will be received. But technology answered it all. The use of webcams, video calling platforms for the conduct of examinations, issuance and implementation of guidelines, and plagiarism detectors will be the problem solvers. Assignment and assessment checking will also be done digitally with the help of both artificial intelligence and graders with relevant knowledge and experience.

2Will online learning hamper the procurement of practical knowledge and skills?

Technology has solutions to most if not all problems. Implementing theoretical knowledge is equally important as gaining it, so in no way can practicals and skills enhancement be compromised. With the help of a virtual laboratory environment, this obstacle can be overcome. Cloud-based platforms like AWS help in creating a 24*7 Cloud access platform for students, and teachers to provide access to storage and experiment applications. Real-life problems can be experienced at your place and solutions to those can also be provided remotely with the aid of VR and AR.

3What challenges will be faced in the implementation of online learning?

According to a past study by the Ministry of Rural Development, 47% of Indian families get about 12 hours of electricity and 36% of schools work without electricity. Can the Internet reach these families and places before electricity? The accessibility and openness of technology will be provided according to affordability. Having full concentration even in a comfortable environment and investment in assets for online learning is not possible for all. Digital literacy is one of the provisions attached to online learning. Moreover, this technology will not be able to serve the needs of the specially abled who should have been the prime concern.

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