Crisis-driven online exam shift ‘chance to boost academic integrity’

Integrity benefits of remote assessment via tech and change in attitudes outweigh the drawbacks, experts say

April 15, 2020
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Higher education’s online shift, driven by the coronavirus pandemic, will reduce the incidence of cheating and plagiarism among students, according to a leading academic integrity expert, while others praise the capacities of remote invigilation technology.

The coronavirus crisis has been described by some as a “perfect storm” for contract cheating. But Cath Ellis, associate dean of education at UNSW Sydney and a researcher in the field of academic integrity with a particular interest in contract cheating, said that on balance, the pandemic’s influence on integrity would be more positive than negative.

She said its pernicious effects were likely to be outweighed by heightened awareness of integrity issues, reduced reliance on traditional exams and improved detection thanks to the “digital fingerprint” of online education.

“There might be new and possibly more opportunities to cheat than there were before,” said Dr Ellis. “There might be new and more temptations to cheat. But, in many ways, nothing’s changed. Scrutiny of student behaviour should be no different to what it ordinarily is.”

Northern hemisphere universities fear an explosion in academic misconduct as they approach the end of the academic year with little prospect of staging face-to-face examinations. But Dr Ellis said the backup tests cobbled together around the world could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

She said there was a “misplaced trust” that cheating could be overcome by “putting students into great big exam halls” where they were eyeballed by “people with squeaky shoes walking between the aisles”.

“Students have always cheated in exams,” Dr Ellis said. “Our research showed it is still the place where most contract cheating is happening. In some ways, moving them online is giving us better access to information about their behaviours than we would otherwise have.”

Nevertheless, academics should “continue looking for patterns of behaviour that are concerning and put energies into detection”, she added.

The University of New England (UNE), a long-standing specialist in distance education, has been moving its exams online since 2017. Its plan to make remote exams the default option by the end of this year has been expedited, with all tests now conducted online.

“We’ve basically done a 10-month change project in two weeks,” said Jennifer Lawrence, programme director for academic success. “With the shift to online invigilation, a lot of people are very nervous about academic integrity. But my experience has been that it’s much more secure.”

She said “high stakes” exams were delivered using remote invigilators via US-based company ProctorU. Students, who typically take the tests at home, must use their webcams to show that they have not smuggled in materials that could give them an unfair advantage.

Examiners can access students’ computers remotely to check for duplicated devices or unauthorised software. Impersonation is prevented by technology that recognises students’ faces and typing styles, while artificial intelligence is used to detect shadows betraying other people hidden in the room.

Ms Lawrence said that when UNE introduced remote invigilation, staff had cheated covertly during “practice run” exams. Invigilators “picked it up every time”, she said. “These are invigilators who have extensive training [and] do it every day – they’re really good at it.

“In a face-to-face setting, invigilators are often retirees,” Ms Lawrence continued. “They do it for a couple of weeks once every three months.” Remote invigilators scrutinised between four and eight students each, she added, while their counterparts in exam halls often had to observe several dozen.

“People tend to think that face-to-face invigilation is perfect,” Ms Lawrence said. “In reality, it can never be unless you have one-to-one ratios, metal detectors on the doors and people with machine guns patrolling the hallways.”

Research strategist Thomas Barlow said the security benefits of remote testing would only improve during the pandemic. “Online assessments are an area of enormous potential,” he added.

“The solutions [people] identify to deal with the current situation will be advantageous once it’s all over. People will invent things in this time of crisis and later think, ‘This is great.’”

Dr Ellis said academics should use the pandemic as an opportunity for “heartfelt” discussions with students about academic integrity and why it matters. “It’s a discipline-specific, intense, honest, transparent conversation with your students about the situation and what you expect of them.

“If ever there’s been a time to demonstrate that you can act with integrity, it’s now.”

She said many years of academia had taught her that “if you have expectations for your students, they’ll meet them. If your expectations are high, they will meet them; so set high expectations.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Online exam shift ‘chance to boost academic integrity’

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Reader's comments (2)

The issue of plagiarism and cheating has always been a "bone of contention". In my case it was the Head of School who told me to pass all the overseas students as they pay high fees, and that I was "getting paid enough". He was investigated a few years later for having taken over $500,000 in bribes from overseas students, which was hidden in a Singapore bank account. I lost my job as a Lecturer because I did NOT take bribes (unlike the other academics in the Business School) and was not considered a nice person because I "blew the whistle" on this bribery and corruption. Whilst new technology will help to sort out those who plagiarise and cheat, there will be those that have found their way around this technology.
Ironic that the more of this piece I read, the more I began to see so much more room for cheating in the new dispensation. I’m not sure the various contributors took a global view of the problem or of the ( technical ) remedies they suggested. Optimism far more than reality seemed so evident . Basil jide fadipe.

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