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The Invigilator app uses live selfies and facial recognition technology to verify the identity of the person who is writing an assessment. Picture: Supplied/UJ
The Invigilator app uses live selfies and facial recognition technology to verify the identity of the person who is writing an assessment. Picture: Supplied/UJ

“When Covid-19 first struck, the shift to online teaching and learning wasn’t all that difficult,” says Jurie Wessels, a lecturer in the department of accountancy at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

“The university was ready for it — we’d been using online systems for years — and so we were able to make the adjustment fairly quickly and successfully. The virtual migration, however, wasn’t just about our teaching and learning processes. We soon realised we had to assess our students remotely, too.

“And that was something we’d never done before.”

Invigilation goes digital

Wessels one of the pioneers behind The Invigilator, SA’s first remote invigilation app.

The Invigilator was developed by Wessels; Dewald Joubert, who lectures in the same department; Nicholas Riemer, who previously completed his accounting articles at UJ; and Riemer's brother, Matt Riemer, a software developer.

“As Covid-19 pushed our courses online, we realised we had to find a way to guarantee the credibility of our assessments, and the integrity of our qualifications, without tests or exams being conducted in person,” says Joubert.

“Our research showed, however, that a local solution — one that was sensitive to SA’s unique challenges — didn’t exist. The proctoring solutions we could find had largely been developed in the US, and operated under certain assumptions that didn’t apply here.”

Students in SA often work with neither a laptop nor easy access to the internet, but what most have is a smartphone, or at least access to one, and that, we realised, was our opportunity
UJ lecturer Dewald Joubert on the creation of The Invigilator

Almost all the available solutions demanded that students have a laptop with minimum requirements in terms of processing power and speed, for example. A reliable high-speed internet connection was also a given.

“Students in SA often work with neither a laptop nor easy access to the internet,” Joubert explains. “But what most have is a smartphone, or at least access to one, and that, we realised, was our opportunity.”

In no time at all, the team set about creating a mobile-centric, easy-to-use, data-conscious, ethically robust and affordable app.

This app had to address two primary risks. The first was ensuring that students’ identities were accurately verified; even without in-person invigilation, the right person always has to write the right paper. And the second was ensuring that students weren’t helping one another by sitting in the same place, talking or sharing notes.

Technology to the rescue

“We started by implementing obvious solutions first,” says Joubert. “We used GPS tracking to pinpoint the location of students and their proximity to one another, and introduced facial recognition technology, which verifies students’ identities as they sit down to write. We also enabled our app to take random audio recordings. This feature prevents students from speaking while they write — there’s always the chance that they’re being recorded.”

In time, however, the team added more functionality by using some of the best artificial intelligence (AI) available. This included requiring students to take random selfies during an assessment, which are matched through facial recognition technology to a master photo to verify the identity of students on an ongoing basis.

Students are required to take random selfies during an assessment, which are matched through facial recognition technology to a master photo to verify their identity

This feature uses a liveness test, a form of anti-spoofing technology that ensures students aren’t supplying photos of photos or photos of videos. Every selfie received must be “live”. If it isn’t, the app will flag this issue for lecturers to review.

The team also addressed other challenges. The Invigilator’s in-app browser, for instance, allows students to access their institution’s learning management systems directly from the app, creating a smooth and seamless assessment experience.

While the app was designed to be used on any smartphone, even entry-level devices, the AI processing that takes place on the back end is world-class.

In this way, The Invigilator cuts to the core of what the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is all about. “Jurie, Nicholas and I are accounting specialists, not programmers,” says Joubert. “What we understand, however, is that the possibilities in the 4IR era are endless. We didn’t need the technical know-how to bring our vision to life, we simply needed to look at the problems about us critically, and imagine ways to solve them creatively. And in 4IR, that’s what really matters.”

The Invigilator in practice

The Invigilator was developed between May and October 2020. Soon after, it was ready to be rolled out at tertiary institutions ahead of the year-end exams.

Today, it is being used at 10 tertiary institutions — and counting — in SA, including by some 230,000 students at Unisa. It has proved to be both scalable and adaptable, and is completely agnostic across institutions and disciplines. 

The Invigilator became the most downloaded education app in SA in September 2021

In September 2021, it became the most downloaded education app in SA.

“The results have been incredible,” says Wessels. “It’s helped lecturers to maintain the integrity of their modules and qualifications, and has reassured students that their hard work will pay off. Students also have access to a technical help desk if they come across any issues during their assessments, which gives them peace of mind.”

Invigilating in a post-Covid world

“While Covid-19 forced us to go online and develop The Invigilator in the first place, the app has value in a post-Covid world, too,” says Joubert. “This value will be especially obvious in continuous assessment and blended learning.”

Co-ordinating testing and exam venues can be logistically challenging, and may prevent lecturers from assessing students as often as they would like. With an online invigilation solution at their fingertips, however, these challenges fall away, enabling lecturers to examine their students more frequently, which helps them to identify potential issues and ensure that their students succeed.

Blended learning is also likely to remain. “Teaching, learning and assessments will never be the same as they were pre-Covid,” says Wessels. “A lot of what we’ve learnt during the pandemic will likely stay, including the huge demand for remote learning. And since virtual courses will need to be assessed remotely, too, we anticipate that The Invigilator will be relevant well into the future.”

The team is constantly working on new features to improve the app, including a process that will enable it to detect similarities in students’ scripts. This iterative innovation is at the heart of humanity’s ability to adapt to the social, economic, environmental, educational and public health challenges we will inevitably encounter. And if we can adapt, we can begin to change our world for the better.

Visit Uj.ac.za/4IR for more '4IR in Action' stories.

This article was paid for by the University of Johannesburg.

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