Do We Need To Worry About Smartwatches Disrupting Education?

I’ve spoken a lot recently about the challenges posed by the changes in technology used by students in education and in the wider world, particularly when lecturers aren’t poised to react to these changes.

Several student cheating commentators, myself included, have mentioned the Apple Watch as being a device that exam invigilators should look out. And this is only one of a number of smartwatch competitors on the market.

The smartwatch essentially moves several features of a mobile phone to the convenient location of being on a student’s wrist. A student looking at a watch, or even lightly touching it, wouldn’t usually be of concern to an invigilator (unless the student had forgotten to disable the annoying beep sound that some watches emit). A smartwatch is a different story.

Many university exam procedures and anti-cheating regulations do not yet specifically discuss smartwatches. This needs to be discussed during regular periodic reviews of teaching processes.

Likewise, not all invigilators are yet familiar with looking for smartwatches and I suspect that many would not know how to recognise them when confronted with a examination hall full of students. With such a variety of fashion watches available for students, even the slightly bulkier frame of a smartwatch may not stand out.

Along with the Apple Watch, there are many other brands and types of smartwatches available on the market and these really don’t need to be expensive. For instance, I imported a low-end smartwatch from China running the common Android operating system to test out and this cost under £10 – and that included shipping to the UK.

News stories in this field have found examples of students taking examinations having answers transmitted to them. These answers were displayed on the small smartwatch screen.

You can now also buy smartwatches that are advertised specifically as cheating watches. Functionalities vary, but all of them are designed to provide quick access to information that students might have ready for an exam, whilst also looking like a regular smartwatch. Particularly sophisticated versions of this use a screen that looks like a real watch face. It would be difficult to notice this without doing very close and careful checks of all student watches.

I have seen some movement towards addressing this problem with revised university examination processes. There are examples of universities where students are now only allowed to take a watch into an examination when placed in a clear plastic bag and positioned on their desk, presumably not to be touched during the examination.

The media has raised a wider question asking if schools, colleges and universities on the way towards airport style security for exams? To protect the integrity of exams, there do certainly need to be changes put into place.

Having been both a student and an invigilator in many examinations, I know that the methods used to communicate time remaining can be limited. Think, poorly positioned clocks Think also, inconsistent clocks in different parts of a large room and analogue devices where it’s really not obvious which minute the clock hand is pointing to. I’ve even seen clocks with failing batteries which lose time during the examination. That’s why, it’s currently almost a necessity for students to have a watch with them. I do think that simply disallowing watches should be possible, but to do that, much better ways of communicating exam timings are needed.

Something for the educators involved with examinations to think about.

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Article by Thomas Lancaster

I am an experienced Computer Science academic, best known for research work into academic integrity, plagiarism and contract cheating. I have held leadership positions in several universities, with specialty in student recruitment and keen interest in working in partnership with students. Please browse around the blog and the links, and feel free to leave your thoughts.
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