Education’s Biggest Challenge: Tech Is Making Cheating Too Easy

By Scott McFarland, CEO, ProctorU.

Scott McFarland

Technology has unquestionably made teaching and learning better in many ways, accessibility and scale most notably. But it’s also made cheating, or academic dishonesty, incredibly easy and incredibly common.

Many people, even those employed in education, probably don’t fully realize exactly how common cheating has become. Three different, independent academic research studies on cheating, all released within the past year, separately described academic misconduct today as “widespread” and “commonplace” and “likely a common occurrence.” One recent academic research paper by professors at Radford University for example, says directly, “studies are increasingly reporting that academic dishonesty – in perception as well as self-reported behavior – is more common in online environments.”

It’s probably common sense that sending millions of students into online learning due to Covid-19 has turned that smoldering problem into a brushfire. In the past few weeks alone we’ve seen cheating scandals break out at West Point, the Air Force Academy, Texas A&M, the University of Oregon, University of Houston, and on and on. Based on our own data from millions of online exams, clear violations of test rules have increased 800% since the spring, when the pandemic set in.  

Honor Codes and Good Intentions Won’t Curb Cheating

As schools continue to realize that honor codes and good intentions alone won’t curb cheating, they’ve increasingly invested in tools and tactics to limit dishonesty. These include randomizing questions, setting exam time limits and using applications that limit or “lock down” Internet browsers to keep students from using Google or other sites. 

Those are a good start, probably mostly because they send a message to students that instructors take academic dishonesty seriously. Research shows that taking action to prevent cheating changes student perceptions and reduces the incentives to take shortcuts. Unfortunately, research also shows that even with lock-down browsers and time limits, students still cheat.

The Radford study found that “Despite a series of mitigation measures that were adopted without direct proctoring–such as the use of a special browser, a restricted testing period, randomized questions and choices, and a strict timer–it appears that cheating was relatively commonplace. Cheating apparently also paid off handsomely, at least when it comes to exam performance, often raising scores by about a lettergrade.”

That study found that even a recorded and reviewed proctoring solution, on top of those other techniques, significantly cut down on cheating. It seems the more risk involved in cheating, the greater the likelihood they could be caught, the less inclined students were to attempt misconduct. Again, this is logical. It’s the very reason why places such as banks and convenience stores have security cameras.

That’s a good analogy in that security cameras can deter bad actions but they cannot stop it in real time. It’s the difference between a security camera and a security guard. That’s where live test monitors add even more value, whether in person or remotely.

Efforts to Limit Cheating Requires a Suite of Solutions

For educators and school leaders, it’s important to think of efforts limiting cheating not as a solution but as a suite of solutions including clear integrity policies, honor codes, strong academic and student supports, assessment techniques such as randomized questions and some form of proctoring, ideally live proctoring where a human is involved.

And while we know that not even doing all that will eliminate cheating, it’s important that we do everything we can to try. If acknowledging cheating and engaging efforts to limit it sends the one message we need to convey, then doing nothing sends the opposite message, that cheating is allowed or even expected. 

That’s a problem because cheating obviously violates our fundamental sense of fairness and integrity and simultaneously represents a serious and substantial threat to education itself. With cheating so widespread, what it means to “earn” a degree is suddenly an open question.

There’s no reason to entertain those consequences. Here too, the logic seems clear. If instructors and other academic leaders do everything possible to curtail academic dishonesty and students still cheat, that’s the student’s responsibility. If, however, we go only halfway, if we only build in ways to catch cheating and ignore academic support – or the other way around – then we own some responsibility for allowing students to make the bad choices that cheating represents.

Cheating has been a problem in academia since, I am sure, forever. But it’s undeniably worse now than it’s ever been. But we’re not powerless against it. We know there are steps and educational practices to protect the value of learning and keep students away from the easy, technology-enabled temptations and cheap rewards of cheating. 

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *