Universities say student cheating exploding in Covid era

Institutions respond with both electronic crackdowns and pedagogical soul-searching

December 23, 2020
Caught short cheating should be met with reflection rather than surveillance, say experts
Source: Alamy
Caught short cheating should be met with reflection rather than surveillance, say experts

Universities worldwide have reported a spike in student cheating during the coronavirus-driven shift to online tuition, sparking calls for a fundamental rethinking of what exactly should be taught and assessed.

The base-level problem, several experts said, was that the sudden shift to virtual environments rapidly increased student stress levels while multiplying their opportunities for furtively answering test questions with online assistance.

In Canada, the University of Waterloo counted 1,340 incidents of cheating in the year ending this August, up 146 per cent on the previous 12 months. The University of Calgary said that cases of cheating had increased by 269 per cent, with most of the cases occurring after the onset of the pandemic in March. The institution attributed much of the rise to “a combination of lack of clarity for students in what was permissible in online assessments and opportunities to easily share information through commercial file-sharing sites and group chat applications”.

In Australia, Queensland University of Technology said in September that test-related cheating had quadrupled. Rates doubled at the University of Houston, one of several Texas institutions encountering large jumps this autumn.

In the UK, the Quality Assurance Agency reported that Covid-19 had “accelerated” the growth of contract cheating, with 904 essay mills providing ghost-written texts now known to be operating in the country.

“Academic misconduct is not a micro-problem, it’s not even a macro-problem – this is a mega-problem,” said Sarah Eaton, an associate professor of education at Calgary and a programme organiser with the International Center for Academic Integrity. “This is rippling across the globe right now.”

Yet for Dr Eaton and other experts, institutional responses may prove even more troubling. Many universities have embraced electronic surveillance tools to fight back, which in turn were sparking protests from students, outside experts and lawmakers.

Software solutions, several US senators wrote this month to three leading companies selling online monitoring tools to universities, “fall heavily on vulnerable communities and perpetuate discriminatory biases”.

A rights group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, filed a legal complaint this month with city officials in Washington DC, accusing five test-monitoring companies of illegally collecting personal student data and using vague and unproven techniques for catching alleged cheaters.

Better responses, experts said, required profound reconsiderations of what faculty most needed to teach in a modern interconnected and information-bathed world, and of how their student assessments could best measure those skills.

At a minimum, said Camilla Roberts, director of honour and integrity systems at Kansas State University, improvement means such practices as using fewer “high-stakes exams” and more regular quizzes and assignments.

Some faculty are taking on the challenge, said Dr Roberts, the president of the International Center for Academic Integrity, a grouping of higher education leaders focused on issues surrounding academic dishonesty. At Kansas State, she said, “the pandemic has brought the conversation to the forefront”.

Dr Eaton's methods include oral assessments on Zoom. “I bring them in, and look them in the eye,” to learn exactly where each student is doing well or struggling, she said.

“I can figure out in five to 10 minutes what they know and what they don’t know,” she said. “I don’t need to give them a multiple-choice exam, where they’re going to go to Google, and probably not learn the material.”

In many cases, experts said, students weren’t even clear they were cheating, since they’ve grown up with the expectation that they can use the internet to find answers. Publicised cases include a student at Texas A&M University who pleaded for forgiveness after believing he was allowed to use online resources.

“One of the questions I ask my colleagues is: ‘Why are we still doing the same assessments that they gave them in the sixth century’” in China, Dr Eaton said. “We’re better than that, and yet profs keep doing the same damn thing over and over and over.”

The added stresses of the sudden shift to online were clearly part of why so many more students appeared to be cheating, said Amanda McKenzie, director of academic quality assurance at Waterloo.

Many students felt uncomfortable with online classes, didn’t have safe and reliable environments in which to study, and faced professors who may be even more hostile towards the format, she said.

While some institutions reach for “a quick fix to maintain academic integrity” in the form of online monitoring tools, Ms McKenzie said, they instead should be responding with compassion and reflection on their overall approach to modern education.

“It’s a growth moment,” she said. “The opportunity in this moment is to really dig at the deeper learning.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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