Design Approaches For Secure E-Assessment

Using electronic devices for assessments can help to overcome many shortcomings of traditional pen-and-paper exams. Most importantly it increases alignment between education – exam – job. For example, nowadays no one wants to do programming tests on paper! But when you want to use laptops and tablets for taking exams, you have to make various decisions on your approach, organization, IT hardware- and software infrastructure. These decisions are interdependent, you can see your future e-assessment environment as a formula or system with several variables. Some of these variables might have predefined values, others are unknown yet. Usually in the beginning you won’t know the value of several or even all of these variables, so you have to analyze both the needs of your educators and your prerequisites (infrastructure, available staff, existing organizational structures, legal conditions). There will always be several possible solutions for an exam environment, usually all with their individual advantages and disadvantages.

One of the first and most complicated questions to answer is the one about infrastructure. Pen and paper exams don’t need much more infrastructure than a regular classroom; mostly additional staff which is supervising students during the exam, like invigilators/proctors. E-assessments require significantly more infrastructure. Foremost of course electronic devices on which the exam is taken, plus the exam system itself. The latter often is already available inside an e-assessment suite or learning management system (LMS), which is anyways used to support teaching. But exams, especially high-stakes ones, often have higher requirements for reliability and security. The server the online exam system is running on might need to be scaled-up, network connections (especially if using Wi-Fi) improved and some redundancies provided in case some devices fail during the exam. In other cases, a dedicated e-assessment suite might be preferred, either hosted in-house or provided by an external exam provider.

The question about exam devices usually is the most challenging: Are large enough computer labs available, does the institution have to get new devices or can student owned devices be used? Often institutions have no other choice than the “bring your own device” (BYOD) scenario, because they don’t use computer labs (anymore) and buying a large number of devices and renting space exclusively used for exams isn’t feasible. In any case, for most high-stakes exams those devices must be secured, so during the exam students can access only allowed resources and can’t communicate with other students or people outside the exam hall. There are numerous solutions trying to solve these challenges and you will obviously have to find out which fits your requirements and prerequisites.

ETH Zurich, one of the highest-ranking Universities in the world for the subject of engineering, science and technology does not only have long lasting practical experience with e-assessment (first pilots started 2007). ETH is also leading the development of the modular assessment client solution SafeExamBrowser (SEB) since 2008. SEB is a kiosk or lock down exam client, which temporarily secures devices used as exam clients. An exam can run on a web server, a virtual desktop or offline on the device. SEB is being developed as an open source project at ETH Zurich and supported by the SEB Consortium. The modularity, openness and independency from a centralized server or cloud service lead to SafeExamBrowser being used worldwide for various kinds of e-assessments. SEB is available as freeware, the SafeExamBrowser project and the SEB Consortium don’t have commercial interests. Instead, SEB is being developed to be the best and most flexible, broadly available solution to secure exam client devices for taking exams provided by various web-based exam systems. Because SEB was developed at an academic institution, the software was from the beginning designed to meet the requirements of universities and other educational institutions. One of such common requirements is to not be dependent on one e-assessment solution. Especially in higher education often several exam systems need to be used to meet preferences and requirements of different faculties, disciplines and educators. Therefore, SEB can be used with basically any web-based exam system. But there are also integrations for several learning management and exam systems available, which increase security when taking exams on devices running SEB and connecting to the exam software.

SafeExamBrowser is more than a lockdown web browser though. It also allows to securely use specific applications and resources, which can either be stored on the exam client device or provided by an external server. SEB can be configured to allow to run specific Windows applications along with a web-based exam and provides a built-in user interface to start and switch between the SEB browser and those permitted third party applications. Complex Windows applications can be run in a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), which allows controlled and homogeneous exam environments, pre-configured by the exam administrator. SEB then allows to securely connect to these virtual desktops from any Windows or macOS exam client computer, while preventing examinees from accessing local resources or means of communication during the exam. Pre-selected resources like PDF documents or entire web applications can also be opened together with a web-based online exam (or instead). Those additional resources can be distributed onto the client devices ahead of the exam, so it’s also possible to perform offline exams, without the need of an Internet connection (or a weak connection can be used just for regularly backing up results to an exam server). This enables conducting e-assessments even in remote areas without an Internet connection. SEB allows to access selected additional resources or whole websites on external servers as well, secured by a powerful URL network filter which is easy to configure.

With those features mentioned above, SafeExamBrowser is a unique modular solution not only for securing classical web-based exams. It also enables new kinds of e-assessments, using regular software packages like Matlab, Excel, R-Studio, Eclipse or accessing web resources like databases in a secured environment during an exam. SEB is available as an application for Windows, macOS and iOS and can easily be installed by students (for BYOD) or deployed onto devices owned and managed by an institution. The browser engine of SEB for Windows can also be used in customized Linux-based exam systems. Downloading and using SEB doesn’t require registering licenses, as it is distributed as freeware. Companies and other institutions can even use SEBs open source codebase to create customized versions, although it would be appreciated if they become member or donate to the SEB Consortium to contribute to the development and maintenance of SafeExamBrowser. Already now the SEB project has created a fast-growing community and SafeExamBrowser is enabling secure and innovative e-assessment in all parts of the world.

Written by Daniel R. Schneider, ETH Zurich Educational Development and Technology (LET), Switzerland. Published by ICWE II GmbH in the Book of Abstracts for OEB Global 2017, ISBN 978-3-941055-47-6. Order the print version here.


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