New Delhi: The first time that the Common Admission Test (CAT) went online, almost everything that could go wrong did. Those seeking admission to India’s top management schools had computers crashing on them, leaving them unable to complete the test and forcing the organisers to offer examinees another go at answering the paper.

Web focus: IIMs are thinking about setting up a company to conduct CAT online.Photo: Bachchan Kumar/Hindustan Times

At least 100,000 students will give computer-based exams to seek a berth in leading engineering colleges in the coming academic session. That’s in addition to the more than 200,000 who apply for the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) through CAT.

Others with online tests include Mumbai’s Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies and a common one for law schools. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has decided to take the All India Engineering Entrance Examination (AIEEE) online for about 100,000 aspirants, or a tenth of the total, with the rest giving their test offline. The exam, key to securing a berth in leading architecture and engineering schools such as the National Institutes of Technology (NITs), will eventually be fully computerized.

Geetam University of Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat Technology University also have online admission tests. The Management Aptitude Test (MAT) conducted by the All Indian Management Association for entry into nearly 500 private business schools is available in both traditional and online versions.

Online tests offer a window during which they can be written—for instance, 20 days for CAT 2010 and three months for NMAT, the Narsee Monjee exam. This makes them less daunting for examinees.

“The computer adaptive exams are reducing stress and becoming a matter of convenience for applicants. Paper-pencil tests are generally one-day affairs. They don’t have the flexibility of you choosing the day, whereas online exams give you that advantage," said Mohit Kataria, a young engineer in Pune, who wants to study management at one of the leading B-schools.

“The online exams are generally spread over (several) weeks and give you the freedom of choosing a convenient date during that window," said Kataria, who has appeared for both CAT formats. “This helps in showing your true potential on your best day. Instead of aspirants reaching out to exams, it’s like exams are reaching out to aspirants."

He also cites the convenience of the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) as the exam can be given more than once in a year.

Computerization has also made the application process easier, said Sambit Mahapatra, a second-year student at International Management Institute (IMI), a private business school based in Greater Noida, near New Delhi.

“You can just download the form, fill it up and upload it rather than moving around from one place to another and standing in long queues," he said. “I have read in newspapers that the IIMs are planning to allow students (to appear for CAT) more than once a year. If that happens it would be a great advantage," said the student who got admission based on his CAT score in 2009.

The traditional testing method is on its way out, said Anand Sudershan, chief executive officer of Manipal Education Group, which selects students for the university it runs through computer-based exams.

G. Raghurama, director at BITS Pilani, agrees. “Eventually, the paper-pencil test will be redundant as the computer-based test is more transparent, hassle-free and scalable," he said.

The increased penetration of computers and Internet access will speed up the acceptance of online testing, said Smarajit Dey, president, strategic initiatives, NIIT, which provided ground support for CAT 2009, conducted by Prometric Inc.—a US-headquartered firm that conducts tests.

While computer penetration in India is less than 10%, a study published by Intel Corp. and IMRB International in August 2010 said PC penetration in urban India has doubled in the last three years from 19% to 38%. According to official statistics, there are nearly 80 million Internet users.

Before the IIMs took CAT online, two leading institutes tried their hand at computer-based entrance exams—XLRI Jamshedpur and BITS Pilani—in 2002.

BITS first made the switch for some of their masters courses and a few years later, all admissions became computer-based. “As a technology institute we wanted to do something different and went for computer-based entrance from 2005," said Raghurama. “There were 57,000 applicants and we conducted the exam in partnership with Eduquity Career Technologies Pvt. Ltd, an Indian test-assessment company headquartered in Bangalore. There were some apprehensions but we managed it well across 14 cities."

Last year, more than 130,000 applied for BITS campuses in Rajasthan, Goa and Andhra Pradesh.

“In 2011, we expect to get more applicants, hence we’re taking it to 27 cities, six more than last year… over a 30-day window," Raghurama added.

XLRI, a leading management institute, decided to take its entrance exam online across 20 cities to begin with, but the experience was not trouble-free.

“We suspended it midway as we faced some problems in a few centres," said M. Shukla, the professor in charge of external relations at XLRI. “Since then we are back to our pen-paper test."

The process involved sending CDs to each centre in order to synchronize the machines there with the central server.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack in the US, “some of our CDs containing exam materials were stuck in airports due to security issues and we decided to scrap it", Shukla said. “The pen-paper test is going well with us but if you ask me whether we will shift to the new format, the answer will be yes."

“Computer-based testing is the need of the hour and we will" switch back to it, he said. “Due to the convenience and the scalable model, it will outperform the traditional method."

There were some genuine infrastructure issues at the start but “we have overcome this", said R. Dhirendra, chief executive officer of Eduquity Careers.

The online method has to contend with three key challenges in India—paper leakage, impersonation and logistics, according to Sanjiv Kataria, an education consultant in Delhi. Once these are overcome, teaching staff can focus on their primary duties. “Instead of professors taking leave from teaching for administrative work, now they can hand over these tasks and non-teaching hassles to someone else," Kataria said.

Two of the world’s biggest testing companies, Pearson Plc. and Prometric, are active in India with dedicated local branches. Pearson conducts NMAT and CLAT, the common law entrance exam.

Local firms include NIIT’s online test division, Merit Track, Everonne, Eduquity and AtTest, a unit of Aptech Ltd.

Dey of NIIT estimates the business to be worth not less than Rs800 crore and expected to double in the next three years.

Madan Padaki, co-founder and chief executive officer of Merit Track, said the company started operations in 2000 to capture the information technology (IT) boom in India.

“A report in 2000 said that the IT industry will employ one million people by 2010 and we thought there will be need for professional test conductors for at least 10 million applicants," he said. Having established themselves in the IT recruitment process market, it entered the higher education space in 2007.

“Currently, 35% of our tests are online tests and we believe in three years it will be around 70%," said Padaki. Merit Track, which has tested one crore people both in the online and offline formats, was also a partner of Prometric in CAT 2010. The company also conducts Gujarat Technological University’s common entrance test.

Aptech Ltd is carrying out half a million online tests every year for a number of distance education universities, said Ninad Karpe, chief executive officer.

“The higher education sector has understood that to scale up an exam without causing hassles either to students or to the faculties, they need to switch over to computer-based exams," he said.

The IIMs, meanwhile, are thinking about setting up a company to conduct the online CAT as reported by Mint on 26 November. “We have formed a committee on this direction. This will take CAT to the international standard," said Devi Singh, director IIM-Lucknow, who supervised CAT 2010 for the IIMs.

There are, however, infrastructure issues that need to be resolved. “To make online exams pervasive, we need to have high-speed Internet connections and larger computer penetration in smaller cities. Power backup is another area that needs to be taken care of," said R. Dhirendra of Eduquity Career Technologies.

A survey carried out in March 2010 by Merit Track in association with some consultants said at least 75% of vice-chancellors believe that online exams are the future in tertiary education. “At least 50% of the universities surveyed felt that they will shift to a computer-based selection process within 12-36 months," said the report, which surveyed 75 varsities and institutes in the country.