Ensuring academic integrity in higher ed

Student cheating is on the rise—as is the use of technology to deter the activity and hold all students to the same standards

It’s an uncomfortable truth for colleges and universities—cheating happens. And by many accounts, it happens a lot.

Although cheating isn’t new, technology facilitates it and student culture more readily accepts it. Students may believe outstanding scholastic performance—achieved by whatever means necessary—paves the difficult-to-navigate path to success.

Added into this mix is the popularity of online education. According to figures provided by Verie, a provider of an identification verification app for smartphones, almost half of all college students are enrolled in at least one online course, and, of these, 72 percent have confessed to cheating.

Cheating still happens in classrooms as well, particularly where class sizes are so large that keeping an eagle-eye on students during test-taking is nearly impossible. There’s also apprehension over plagiarism in student papers and the growing need to spot “borrowed” or unattributed work.

Until recently, most colleges relied on various forms of the honor system. Some still take this approach. But as cheating scandals have become more prevalent, affecting every level of higher education, many institutions are deploying technologies designed to remove the temptation to cheat and the ability to get away with it.

Officials are looking to protect the value of their institutions’ degrees (particularly those awarded for online education) and by extension, their reputations. They also hope to level the playing field on course success for honest students.

Growing urgency to act

Pressures to better safeguard academic integrity come from three areas: administration and faculty concerned about cheating; accrediting agencies that are starting to change their terms pertaining to online courses, particularly related to validating identity; and federal regulators, who are tightening down on Title IV and identity fraud involving online courses, says Don Kassner, CEO of ProctorU.

The company provides colleges and universities with live student identity management and proctoring services, online and via webcam.

“Title IV financial aid fraud happens when an individual uses someone else’s identity to receive financial aid funds, makes it look like they’re part of an online course by doing the bare minimum, then disappears with the funds,” Kassner says.

This is why student identity verification, both at exam time and throughout the course, has become “critically important” for institutions offering online education, says Kassner.

Ensuring test security was one of the main objectives at Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey, says Maureen Woodruff, director of test administration. Using Perception, an assessment management system from Questionmark, educators can write, schedule and deliver exams and quizzes in a secure environment.

“Our proctored exams used to be in the pen/paper format,” she says. “We mailed test booklets to proctors who kept them locked up and unavailable to students until test day. Perception enables us to do the same thing in an online environment—deny access to test links until the official test day.”

Perception also allows for control over the number of times students can access an online test, guaranteeing they have just one chance to complete it, Woodruff adds.

The University of North Texas, Dallas College of Law relies on a suite of modules from Examsoft Worldwide. Once a test is created, it’s released to students, says Jennifer Wondracek, associate director of instructional technology and senior law librarian.

“Students can download the exam file the night before the test, but they cannot access [it] until they’re given the password allowing [the product] SofTest to unencrypt the file,” she says. “The password is usually provided to the proctors just before the examination.”

All tests are given in secure mode—the computer is locked down so it can’t access the internet, hard drives or any other program, keeping students from reviewing notes or other stored information. This also minimizes interruptions by programs such as Windows Update.

Expelling the cheaters: Industry experts on protecting academic integrity

What are the biggest vulnerabilities higher education faces in keeping learning fair, and how should colleges and universities respond?

“The flexibility of online classes and tests poses assessment challenges, such as ensuring the registered student is the one taking the test and reducing the chances of content being shared or researched during testing. Efforts to combat these challenges can range from the online capture of government-issued ID’s via webcam to the use of biometric technology. How a test is constructed and placing time limits can also enhance the integrity of the assessment.”

—Ray Nicosia, executive director, Office of Testing Integrity, Educational Testing Service

“Whether you’re online or in the classroom, people will try to cheat. When the class is online, people are largely anonymous and students that might be deterred from cheating in person can sometimes be tempted to cheat online, since they may think they can get away with it. Students in programs offered by our partner institutions often learn the hard way that they can’t.”

—Don Kassner, CEO, ProctorU

“The motivations to commit academic fraud—either through cheating, impersonation or content theft—haven’t really changed that much over the years, but technology certainly has. And that means the impact of these fraudulent activities can be much broader and happen much more quickly. Thirty years ago you might have a student sharing a photocopied exam with a few friends; today a student might be using a smartphone app to share screenshots of exam content to a much broader group. Fortunately, online assessment technologies today offer new possibilities for ensuring the security of exam content and reducing the risk of cheating.”

—John Kleeman, chairman, Questionmark

“As course activity increasingly shifts to the online environment, the problem of cheating during non-proctored, online exams has skyrocketed. It’s a problem that has been around for 15 years but it’s only recently gotten the attention of accrediting organizations. Powerful technology has emerged that effectively address [this issue]. We’re seeing good traction for this technology but it will probably be another five years before it’s as commonplace on campuses as anti-plagiarism software is today.”

—David Smetters, founder/CEO, Respondus

“Some students will always try to cheat. Many rationalize the behavior, as the cheater knows it could pay off downstream. In fact there’s evidence to suggest these students feel even better about themselves. As a test security solution provider, we’re more likely to catch these attempts regardless of the technique (technology, social media, test banks, etc.) employed. There will always be an arms race between those who want to cheat and solution developers like us who provide the tools that prevent them from doing so.”

—Douglas M. Winneg, CEO/founder, Software Secure

“The biggest vulnerability is and will continue to be technology. Any student can Google ‘take my test’ and be connected with hundreds of companies and individuals eager to help him or her cheat. By maintaining systems that depend on credentials—passwords, personal questions, etc.—rather than ID and location verification, colleges and universities will continue to have not only academic integrity issues, but more importantly, issues with the integrity of their degrees.”

—Jim Drolshagen, president/CEO, Verie

“Many institutions approach the integrity issue of online learning and testing trying to use tools or methods that were not created for the online environment. Even though the online learning community has realized over its recent history that you can’t simply squeeze the curriculum that you use in a traditional classroom onto a screen and expect the same results, many haven’t come to that same conclusion regarding online testing and academic integrity.”

—Eli Adler, director of marketing, Voice Proctor

“We get asked all the time about how to ‘stop’ cheating. Unfortunately, there is no one silver bullet and one big vulnerability is overreliance on any one tactic. We believe that prevention, detection and deterrence are all critical facets of a well-rounded approach. With those, it is equally important that all stakeholders take an active approach in evaluating and updating the existing processes.”

—Kenneth Knotts, vice president of marketing, ExamSoft Worldwide

Students take midterm and final exams in the classroom with proctors. Quizzes, usually given over the weekend, can be taken wherever the student has access to the internet and a computer loaded with SofTest. The environment is still secure, and Examsoft provides “extensive information” about a student’s test-taking experience and outcomes.

“For instance, if a student claims an exam crashed and he wasn’t given the appropriate amount of time, we can verify that and when it happened, when the exam resumed and how much time the student was given upon resumption,” Wondracek says. “With this information, we can make an informed decision on how to handle the student claim.”

On the lookout

Identity management, remote proctoring, biometrics—which use vocal, facial or keystroke recognition—and other technologies can be used on their own or in tandem.

Growing in popularity is online proctoring, which can be deployed either live (with remote proctors watching students as they test) or via a recording.

Some institutions are on the second wave of system use. At the University of West Alabama, for example, a proctoring solution from Software Secure has been in place for online programs since 2008, says Rance Stevenson, director of instructional support for the university. In 2014, the institution upgraded to Remote Proctor Now (RPNow) for online students who have a webcam and high-speed internet connection.

“We wanted our online degrees to have true value and prestige,” Stevenson says. “We could have been labeled a correspondence school if we didn’t ensure academic integrity.”

The webcam records audio and video during the test. Students are required to scan their work area before starting, showing that it’s clear of books, devices, etc.—anything that could be used to cheat. Student identification is taken and confirmed at registration and is confirmed again before the test. Then Software Secure personnel review the recordings, and if suspicious activity or an ID/photo mismatch is detected, the exam is flagged and passed along to the online testing center for further review.

George Mason University in Virginia uses several Respondus tools, including one that locks down the testing environment and another that records video of students during the exam (instructors can view and review as necessary), says Joe DiPietro, an instructional designer at Mason. These solutions are available to instructors whether teaching face-to-face, blended or totally online courses, but they’re primarily for distance education.

How do students view these systems? Some have objected to being watched, says Darin Kapanjie, assistant professor of statistics and managing director of online and digital learning at Temple University’s Fox School of Business in Pennsylvania. Pointing out the value of online proctoring—i.e., holding everyone to the same standards—effectively countered that initial resistance there, he says.

Kassner also suggests that schools provide a second option for students, such as going to a testing center.

Thomas Edison tries to meet students “at their comfort level,” by still offering exams in the pen/paper format, says Woodruff.

Some distance-learning students don’t have reliable internet connections. When pen/paper exams are the choice, students must find an approved test proctor and arrange to go to a test site during a specific week in the term.

DiPietro of George Mason says some students can’t be photographed, whether for religious or work-related reasons, such as being in the military. This makes mutually acceptable and convenient solutions important, as well.

Tech transitions

Student also may struggle with unfamiliar technology, making training important. At the University of North Texas, law school students were concerned that the testing software required them to turn off their computer’s antivirus program. The university allowed students to check out one of 20 laptops available in the library. “At most, we had eight students utilize this option,” she says.

Students can also take practice tests to get more comfortable with the exam environment.

University of West Alabama students are required to take a simulated exam prior to completing coursework. This familiarizes them with RPNow’s policies and ensures the student’s computer is set up in advance, Stevenson says.

The university has a website explaining the minimum specifications required to use the product, and all online students were emailed a document with testing environment rules. Also, administrators created instructional videos and an online testing center as additional resources, in the event that campus IT support wasn’t immediately available to assist with a technical issue faced by an exam taker.

Easing students and faculty into the new way of doing things, and taking their concerns into account, will help overcome objections and improve buy-in. For example, the Fox School focused on ease of use and the overall experience the tools would deliver. Students and faculty were then asked to rate two different solutions before officials made the purchase, Kapanjie says.

At George Mason, DiPietro’s team implemented its academic integrity solution in three phrases:

  1. No-stakes. A not-for-credit quiz designed to last just a few minutes was inserted into one instructor’s course. The class received support materials needed to ensure functionality. This enabled the team to work out problems and refine the tutorials.
  2. Low-stakes. Working with a faculty member, the team developed a 10-minute quiz that served as double-check of the students’ ability to use the program. This also prepared the instructor for working with the tool.
  3. High-stakes. The third, final phase could include an exam of any length in the course.

Stevenson of the University of West Alabama advises other schools to do thorough research when considering an academic integrity solution. “Involve all stakeholders in the research process,” he says. “Be sure there’s majority buy-in from faculty, staff and students—but be prepared for some opposition.”

And then the institution will have laid the groundwork for a more level playing field for its students, enhancing its reputation and the value of its degrees in the process.

Pamela Mills-Senn is a Long Beach, California-based writer.


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