The first two days of the 10 day marathon online CAT or Common Admission Test, the entrance test conducted by Indian Institute of Management (IIM) for admission to its premier business schools throughout India, have been marred by technical glitches keeping 2000 candidates over 50 test centres from appearing for the test on day one. Sunday was no different and almost 50 centres had to be closed down. (release)

This year, an approximate 240,000 students are expected to appear for the online CAT, from 28th November to 7th December at 360 centres in 104 locations. The CAT test scores are also considered for admission by institutes besides the IIMs. Traditionally it was a paper-pencil test, but this year. the IIMs, along with Prometric, a US Based, educational online testing solutions company, had made it an online test. Prometric also conducts the GRE and the TOEFL tests online.

The Problems: Servers, Hung PCs, Viruses

Students had to face issues like servers crashing, computers hanging, login failures and lack of guidance on both days of the test. Faulty computers reportedly also shut down in between tests. Besides that, other aspirants who did manage to give the test found it difficult to concentrate due to the chaos. According to a statement in the Times Of India by Ramesh Nava, VP & GM (Asia Pacific, Japan and Africa) “the viruses that attacked the test delivery system were not detected by the anti-virus software at the testing centres.”

Eleven centres in Bangalore,  eight in Bhopal, six in Lucknow, five each in New Delhi and Mumbai, four in Ghaziabad, two each in Hyderabad and Varanasi, and one centre each in Bhubaneswar, Chandigarh, Coimbatore, Kolkata, Nagpur and Navi Mumbai remained closed on Sunday as well. According to the statement, Prometric had generated new appointments for individuals who had problems on Saturday.

Other Online Tests in India

A similar, recent, attempt at an online test by IGNOU, for its diploma and degree programmes in engineering, had crashed as soon as the test had begun. The exam had been conducted by Yahoo. Manipal and BITS Pilani have been conducting online entrance test for admission from 2005 without serious problems.

Advantages Of An Online Exam System

There’s no excuse for how poorly prepared the organizers and Prometric appear to have been to deal with the scale, and potential issues like virus’ which weren’t detected. However, despite the issues, we believe that an online CAT exam is a step in the right direction:

1. More Choices For Students: The aspirant has the luxury to choose the date from among the 10 days the test is being conducted. B-School aspirants often have to give multiple exams, and an online test held over a period of time allows them to plan their exam schedule accordingly. Engineering entrance exams should also go online: often students have to choose between entrance exams due to a clash of dates, and an online exam reduces the chances of missing a test. Early announcement of results also allows aspirants more time to plan on their choice of b-schools and the formalities involved.

2. Wider Geographical Reach: The test will have wider geographical reach. Students from small towns and rural areas often have to travel long distances to take entrance exams, sometimes in specific states. With proper infrastructure in place the test can be conducted at small towns as well.

3. Reduces Human/OCR Error: It reduces the chance of human error, in terms of correction of the test papers, and the results can be released fast and more accurately. The CAT exam, as Shashi pointed out in the comments, uses an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) system, which also has its issues with detecting answers.

4. Lower Testing And Logistical Costs: Online tests are far more scalable, and a reduction in the marginal cost per student of conducting the test could help reduce the test fee for aspirants. Lets also not forget the logistical issues of collecting test papers from across the country and having them assessed individually.

This is, of course, besides the fact that a paperless test might help save a few trees.

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News Digest: BSNL, Google, Hungama, Yahoo, RCOM, TEDIndia-Times Internet