Digitalisation: a panacea for exam cheating, or not yet?

Whereas Ethiopia once performed better than most in Africa, corruption appears to be widespread and is manifesting itself in various sectors of society, including in the education sector.

The country’s score on the 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), reported by Transparency International was 39 out of 100, with the world average at 43 points. The score, according to CPI, “is the perceived level of public sector corruption on a scale of 0-100, where 0 means highly corrupt and 100 means very clean”.

The crisis has been exacerbated in tandem with the drastic political, social, economic and ideological changes experienced over the past 30 years.

Efforts such as the establishment of the Federal Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission in 2001, revised in 2005, and the setting up of a variety of anti-corruption mechanisms, appear to have had little impact in curbing corruption which is growing at an alarming rate, both in terms of sophistication and reach.

Exam cheating and stealing is one of the major manifestations of corruption in the education sector. It has become an expression of a serious breakdown in the cultural fibre of society leading to the erosion of confidence in the education system, the integrity of exams and the quality of students admitted to tertiary institutions, who later graduate to join the labour market and the federal civil service with credentials earned in an unethical way.

Cumbersome, costly process

In a move to counter this unhealthy development, the Ethiopian Ministry of Education introduced the 2022-23 national Ethiopian School-Leaving Certificate Examination at public universities and under strict control.

Among the various challenges that emerged during the new arrangement were the huge resource and logistic demands the predominant pen-and-paper exam required – demands found to be far beyond the existing capacities of many of the public universities that were instrumental in implementing the cumbersome, costly process.

Given the serious setbacks, the ministry of education started to look at digitalisation as a strategy that could reduce the resources the traditional examinations demand and, at the same time, solve the rampant cheating associated with such an exam. The ministry is currently planning to digitalise the country’s national secondary school-leaving exam and the university exit exams planned for 2023.

The ministry’s digitalisation plan is expected to offer a better alternative owing to its pedagogical and economic advantages such as a quicker and fairer grading process, saving cost and time, and a reduction of the physical handling of the exam papers.

However, a digital solution may not necessarily be immune from a range of threats and vulnerabilities that must be analysed and mitigated.

Resources and infrastructure

Strategic decisions concerning digital exams require the availability of the necessary technical resources and infrastructure. However, the Ethiopian tertiary sector does not appear to be ready.

According to Ethiopia’s Digital Skills Country Action Plan 2030 for higher education and technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions, most public schools, especially those outside Addis Ababa, do not have facilities such as computer labs and qualified teachers to teach IT courses.

According to the country action plan, the use of digital tools and the implementation of integrated systems to support the day-to-day administrative, student management and research-related activities in Ethiopian tertiary institutions are limited, individualised and institution-based.

Higher education and TVET institutions rarely offer online courses and use standard learning management systems, or LMSs, in delivering their courses. Digital libraries and other support systems are implemented in only a few universities and on an individual basis.

More needs to be done to enhance the use of technologies for education, research and management activities, availing high-speed broadband internet to higher education and TVET institutions, as well as implementing capacity-building and transformation or business process re-engineering activities that can strengthen digital skills and use of the technology for national development.

Security issues

A digital solution needs to be secure and robust, since new technology often gives rise to new ways of exploiting vulnerabilities. Software attacks, theft, sabotage and information extortion that are driven by multifarious reasons could set off intentional or random threats that could endanger the viability of a digital system.

Exam environments need to be protected, not only from external attackers, but also from examinees who might wish to sabotage the system before and during the exam in order to get an unfair advantage.

Human error

Humans are often identified as the weakest link in any information system due to the threats they can pose knowingly or unknowingly.

Technical failures or any mistakes caused by personnel involved in the implementation and operation of a digital scheme could pose different threats and damages.

Any unfair advantage given to some users over others through human errors and weaknesses could affect the integrity of the software used and the reputation and dependability of the system.

Expertise and familiarity

The transformation to a digital platform demands expertise – assembling the right team of experts and enterprise architects who can provide the necessary support at various levels of the system.

Similarly, the proper internalisation of a digital system requires support to train exam candidates who should be made familiar with the exam environment and devices prior to the exam.

Given the status quo in Ethiopia, much needs to be done in this area. There are a vast number of students with limited IT knowledge. Although tertiary education institutions offer introductory ICT courses to all their students, these courses are not based on any national or global standard with clearly defined progressive levels of achievement.

Ethiopia’s Digital Action Plan 2030 sets out key digital competences and proficiency levels (fundamental, intermediate, advanced, and specialised) required in different occupations, but this awaits proper implementation.

Toward a long-lasting solution

Transforming the paper-based exam system in Ethiopia into a digital one can offer a variety of advantages that seem to be the driving force for introducing the system in the education sector.

However, given the inherent gaps and limited readiness of the sector, more needs to be done in order to ensure the successful implementation of such a grand scheme.

Among others, the foregoing discussion suggests the need for having a clear national strategy that responds to the various demands, such as infrastructure and facilities, expertise, student familiarity, security needs and the like, associated with digital exams.

Unavoidably, the envisaged strategy should align with the priorities of the 10-year Development Plan in the ICT sector and Digital Ethiopia 2025 – Ethiopia’s national digital strategy.

Far beyond safeguarding exams digitally, dealing with cheating and stealing requires addressing the different reasons that cause the problem in the first place.

Hence, in addition to the digital solutions planned, urgent attention needs to be given to restoring a culture of integrity at all levels of the system and society at large by heightening the fight against fraudulent and corrupt practices in all their forms and manifestations.

Collaborative efforts are particularly needed in galvanising key stakeholders such as students, parents, instructors, education and examination authorities, and the society at large.

There is also more to be done at institutional levels in terms of eradicating exam cheating and stealing practices through interventions such as the adequate preparation of students, setting clear and transparent regulatory requirements that help address various forms of irregularities and unhealthy exam practices, and providing adequate guidance and counselling.

As responsible authorities, political leaders should also embrace the opportunity to spearhead efforts in this direction, making the issue part of their political agenda and supporting and complementing the current efforts of the Ethiopian Ministry of Education and other responsible organisations and institutions that are combating the malpractice upfront.

Wondwosen Tamrat (PhD) is an associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; a collaborating scholar of the Programme for Research on Private Higher Education at the State University of New York at Albany, United States; and coordinator of the private higher education sub-cluster of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa. He may be reached at or This is a commentary.