High school teaching in Egypt may be moribund and low tech, but students are harnessing the power of innovation and technology for cheating.
In one high school examination room, Nada Hafez, a student, told Egypt Independent about some instances of cheating at her school. According to Hafez, students used their cell phones, particularly BlackBerries, to cheat on the English language exam.
“The exam monitor did not wish to be responsible for cell phone thefts, so he didn't make us leave our phones outside on a table next to the door like most classes do,” said Hafez.
“He asked each of us to keep the phone in his or her pocket. Another monitor was not aware students were using their phones to cheat, while a third saw them cheat, but ignored it.”
Hafez said she did not see any photocopies of the exam before the test, explaining that the students cheated through text messaging each other. Answers were also sent on Twitter or through the “broadcast” message feature on BlackBerries which allows a user to send a message to all the contacts registered and subscribed to the service. Alternatively, iPhone users used the WhatsApp messenger to cheat.
“If you are lucky enough to be seated next to the wall, you can put the phone on the chair between the wall and your thigh and quickly hide it from view when a monitor walks by. If you are not seated next to a wall, you may still put the phone between your thighs and bring your legs together when you feel a monitor approaching,” Hafez explained.
High school (thanaweya amma), which students attend at the ages of 17 and 18, is a crucial educational stage in Egypt. A student’s score in the thanaweya amma examinations can determine whether they are admitted to a free public university and what course they are able to study. From 1994 until this year, students sat for two sets of examinations — following the first and second year of schooling — each of which contributed 50 percent to their total score. This year, the first set of examinations was abolished.
Rawya Ahmed, who is taking her second round of examinations at the Khaled Ibn al-Walid School for girls in Alexandria, told us about her experience with cheating.
“In my examination room, students cheated secretly. Frankly, though, before the start of the exam, the monitors repeatedly said that cell phones should be shut off and kept on a table at the front of the class. Several of the supervisors on our floor came in to give the same instructions. But the room was not well controlled, and there was so much noise.”
Rawya expressed sadness about the ease of cheating and the chaos in the examination room. “Cheating is an impulse some people have; whether a cheater has a tool to help with cheating or not, he or she will still cheat. Several people have cheated even though their phones were inside their bags. Towards the end of the exam, the room was chaotic.
“The students said one girl received a message containing the answers to all of the exam questions,” she went on. “I heard that in the examination room next to us, the students used their cell phones openly but when they took it a bit too far the monitor took away some of the phones.”
While, according to critics, Egypt's teaching methods and curricula have remained stuck in the past, with huge class sizes and cramped schools, cheating has leapt ahead. Students who once hoped to get a peek at others' answers, or brought crib sheets into the exam, now use cell phones and BlackBerries, exploiting modern technology to answer difficult questions.
An official source from the General Department for Examinations who spoke on condition of anonymity said there are clear instructions that students should not be allowed into examination rooms with their cell phones. Students should hand over their phones at the door.
“But some students insist on taking their phones with them, and because we think of them as our children and do not wish for them to get nervous before an exam, we sometimes let them in with their phones,” the source said. “A student who wants to cheat will find incredible ways to do so.”
The same source said that for the first time, the Education Ministry has printed stickers that carry the names of the students and their seat numbers. Those were given to the monitors to enable them to keep the students’ cell phones until they finish their exams.
To address cheating, the Education Ministry examined the possibility of using blocking devices in examination rooms, however, the fast pace of technological development led officials to drop the idea. An operations room was set up to monitor the use of Twitter and find out the source of leaked exam questions. Some of the people were tracked down and have been punished, the source said.
“We advise parents to prevent their children from taking their cell phones to exams,” the source said. “We have printed instructions and hung them inside examination rooms to warn students against cheating, and we have also printed the same instructions on the seat numbers that students receive. Cheating laws may punish a student by barring him or her from an exam for one or two years, according to anti-cheating ministerial decree number 319.”