University students will start to sit exams online from their own home or office under a remote monitoring system being tested this year by Massey University.
The students will be watched by supervisors using a webcam and their typing patterns will be checked to guard against cheating.
The trial is being closely studied by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, which also wants to convert end-of-year NCEA secondary school exams to a test-as-you-learn online format within the next eight years.
The head of Massey's teaching and learning centre, Professor Mark Brown, said the university was working with Kryterion, a US-based company which specialised in running online exams.
"The system is so sophisticated it learns your keystrokes. It has cameras that watch what people do, and the ability to lock down everything. That sounds all very fine but we want to know how it operates in practice."
Kryterion's website says its system takes over the examinee's computer and verifies their identity through keystroke patterns and facial recognition software. It also employs a supervisor who watches on the web camera for "unusual eye movements, removing oneself from the field of vision and making atypical noises". If the supervisors spot unusual activity, they can either stop the exam, warn the exam taker or tell the client afterwards, depending on their instructions.
Professor Brown said staff would test the system next month. If there were no technical glitches, a small number of summer school students in subjects such as business and veterinary science would take voluntary, non-graded tests, with a view to running bigger trials next year.
He said making students do exams with pens and paper was hopelessly outdated in a computerised world. "I don't know about you but I personally couldn't sit down and write by hand for three hours. We've digitised our curriculum heavily at Massey but the one aspect still a bit of a contradiction is we then ask people to sit down and write for ... hours on paper.
"There's a physical issue about people's ability to do that and we think we have to invest in this technology to work out how we're going to address that problem in the future."
Professor Brown said Massey, which specialises in distance learning, had been working on the system for 18 months. It was more important with the rapid international growth of Massive open online courses - known as Moocs - which allowed millions free access to tertiary education but raised questions over how their work should be tested and valued against traditional university courses.
Waikato University started New Zealand's first Mooc in computer science this week. Massey plans to start next month through Australian provider Open2Study.
Professor Brown said governments around the world needed to take Moocs seriously because they challenged the business model which underpinned the university system. Yet little progress had been made.
"E-learning's a bit like teenage sex. Everyone says they're doing it but not many people really are and those that are doing it are doing it very poorly."
NZQA chief executive Dr Karen Poutasi said her staff were watching developments in online assessment. The NCEA exam system involved 2 million pieces of paper moving round the country, and encouraged online learning but sent students "back to the Dark Ages" to hand-write exams.