Algeria’s Answer to Cheating on School Exams: Turn Off the Internet

Students at a secondary school in Algiers in 2008. The country had large-scale electronic cheating scandals around its critical high-school exams in both 2016 and 2017.

CAIRO — Vexed by cheating on high-school exams, an age-old problem abetted by social networks and smartphones, the Algerian government reached this week for a drastic response: It turned off the internet.

Internet access has been shut down nationwide for at least an hour a day, beginning on Wednesday, at the times when students are taking the annual baccalaureate exams. In addition, “all smart devices that can access the internet” have been removed from the country’s over 2,000 examination centers, Algerian state news media said.

The digital blackout is intended to spare the country from a repeat of mass cheating scandals that have embarrassed it in recent years. In 2016, some high-school exam questions were posted on social media before or at the start of the tests, marring the results. The government’s failure to secure the exams was widely criticized and ridiculed, and it was forced to organize a new test for latecomers, who might have had illicit access to the questions.

Exasperated, Algerian education officials asked internet service providers to block social networking websites like Facebook during last year’s exams, but some of the questions still managed to find their way to other online platforms, reviving the uproar.

“Securing the high-school exams is very important,” the North African country’s education minister, Nouria Benghabrit, announced at a sober news conference earlier this week. “Our commitment to the principle of fairness and the principle of equal opportunity led us to take all kinds of measures and they include cutting off the internet.”

In some corners, the move was met with derision and anger; people shared photos on social networks of frustrated travelers who were delayed at Algiers International Airport because of the shutdown.

Saadia Gacem, a graduate student in sociology, called the internet blockage a “radical measure” that exposed the country’s inability to deal with the problem. “We do not turn off internet in other countries to fight against the fraud at the baccalaureate,” she said.

But in fact, Algeria joined a growing number of countries that have taken such extreme measures to combat cheating, as the practice becomes more prevalent and harder to detect. In recent years, India, Ethiopia, Iraq and Uzbekistan have also shut down the internet to stop online questions and answers leaks, and Egyptian lawmakers flirted with the idea in 2016.

In 2015, China deployed drones carrying radio scanners to catch students who were using electronic devices to cheat, while some universities in Australia and New Zealand have banned wristwatches, especially smart watches, from exam rooms after discovering that some students were using them to go online and cheat.

As is the case in much of the world, the baccalaureate exams for students finishing high schools are very important in Algeria, largely determining their chances of continuing on to a university or landing a good job. Pressure to score high has increased since the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, as the struggling economies of the Middle East have offered young people fewer prospects.

The internet disruptions in Algeria will continue until 700,000 students finish their exams on Monday, the education ministry said, adding that it has assigned one exam proctor for every three students. Cellphone jammers were also posted in front of examination centers, and surveillance cameras and metal detectors were installed and closely supervised to spot any signs of foul play, officials said.

Government shutdowns of the internet cost the global economy $2.4 billion in 2016, according to the Brookings Institution, and some human rights advocates consider them a violation of civil rights. Most of the shutdowns that take place, however, do so for political reasons. In 2011, the governments of both Egypt and Libya suspended internet access in an effort to quell Arab Spring protests.

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