James Aguilar stared at his computer screen, unsure which of the four possible answers fit the question on his political economy quiz: “Comparative advantage refers to what?”
Like students everywhere during the pandemic, Aguilar, a junior at San Francisco State University, was attending school and taking a test from home under the watchful eye of no one. It would have been easy to Google the answer, and Aguilar admits he was tempted. But he didn’t.
“A little angel on my shoulder said, ‘Look, don’t be lazy. Do the best that you can with what you know’,” he said. He chose option 2 – “the ability to produce a good or service more efficiently than other countries”, which sounded a lot like the other choices but seemed right.
The full extent of online cheating inspired by the pandemic – illicit Googling, friends texting answers to each other or sharing screen shots of exam questions in advance – can’t be measured, despite the new popularity of camera-monitoring, online proctoring and artificial intelligence to track students’ computer moves.
But it’s clear from the available data, and from conversations with students, that the temptation to cheat is stronger than ever among test-takers far removed from classroom norms and professors’ eyes.
In the three months before March 15, the company ProctorU, which monitors tests remotely, confirmed cheating in 2,547 cases – fewer than 1% of the suspicious incidents it checked out.
In the three months after March 15, when the pandemic triggered campuses across the US to move online, ProctorU verified 57,597 cheating incidents – 8.12% of suspicious cases.
To many universities and ethicists, that’s a cause for concern. Students Googling answers on tests have an unfair advantage over students who don’t do it. And the same behaviour by, say, medical students or apprentice pilots has even deeper consequences, potentially placing others in jeopardy, ethicists say.
As the surging pandemic keeps classes and exams mainly online, much is at stake. But the pandemic has also energised campuses to talk more openly than ever about how to inspire academic integrity – even more so than during the recent rise of a global industry of crooks that has made it easy and cheap for students to hire online phantoms to do their work for them.
Today’s discussions are yielding new policies and campus guidance – including some unexpected approaches – to tackling the human tendency to break rules for personal gain.
“It’s definitely requiring us to rethink what our expectations are,” said Michelle Darnell, who leads the Tarriff Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at Penn State.
This fall, the California State University system issued guidance urging its 23 campuses to avoid using electronic proctoring, whether by faculty over Zoom or the online services they’ve relied on for years to monitor test-takers who had voluntarily signed up for virtual classes.
Now that everyone has to study remotely, problems with fairness have surfaced, Alison Wrynn, CSU’s associate vice chancellor of academic programs, told the campuses, which posted a record enrollment of more than 485,000 students this fall.
She said that students who take a proctored exam need a lot of things they may not have: a computer with a microphone and a camera facing them at all times. Also, strong, reliable WiFi and a quiet room to be alone and uninterrupted during the test.
“Not all students will be able to create this environment from their remote testing location,” Wrynn wrote.
Many live in a loud or crowded place, with nowhere else to go. Some students may not want to be recorded, whether for privacy or religious reasons. And disabled students might lack the accommodations they are legally entitled to when taking a test.
The university recommended other ways for instructors to measure students’ knowledge: open-book exams. Timed tests to reduce the opportunity to hunt for answers. Projects, papers and presentations. Electronic portfolios.
That approach makes sense to Aguilar at San Francisco State, who sits at his computer for hours at a time, taking classes from the one-bedroom home in San Leandro he shares with his parents, brother and niece.
A political science major, Aguilar serves in student government and said the pandemic has led many people to cheat.
“It’s not necessarily malicious,” he said. “My hope would be that universities and K-12 institutions would look at the conditions that we're under and make sure we're not reprimanding students” inappropriately.
The idea of abandoning online proctoring might seem a strange way for a university to prevent cheating. But supporters say that alternatives to traditional testing could do just that.
“We can set up the situation so the student does not feel so desperate or disadvantaged that they feel that their only recourse is to try to gain an unfair advantage,” said Maggie Beers, assistant vice president for teaching and learning at San Francisco State.
The faculty’s Academic Senate recently passed a resolution condemning the use of online proctors. And campus President Lynn Mahoney is sympathetic to that idea.
Many universities are not.
“If you have classes with a couple hundred students, you’ll have proctors. Why should online be any different?” asked Penn State ethics Professor Linda Treviño, co-author of Cheating In College: Why Students Do It And What Educators Can Do About It.
Scott McFarland, chief executive at ProctorU, which documented the spike in cheating after campuses moved online, said the problem would be worse without monitoring.
“Keep in mind that millions of tests are given with no proctor or test integrity system whatsoever, which should make people think about what’s going on when no one is watching,” McFarland told The Chronicle. “It’s the honest students who often pay the highest price.”
One student at a large public university admitted to The Chronicle that he has looked up answers during unproctored tests. He asked that his name not be used so his school wouldn’t nail him for cheating,
“It feels kind of slimy,” he said. “It feels not right. But I know it happens with everybody. It has to.”
Colleges don’t deny that. So UC Berkeley, a top research university, is researching how best to attack the problem. Faculty are seeking an approach that will encourage honesty and discourage cheating – while also recognising the inequity students face.
“It is a sensitive conversation, in part because there’s no clear, right answer,” said Terry Johnson, an engineering professor and faculty director for the campus’ Center for Teaching and Learning.
He said UC Berkeley faculty who accept online proctoring – it’s done in about 60 classes this semester – typically use Zoom rather than hire outside companies. Those faculty are part of a pilot programme on campus and will later answer questions about their proctoring experiences, with the goal of developing an online testing policy or guidelines. Two faculty committees, with student participation, are also working on the issue.
Overall, Johnson said, the idea is to understand and reduce the temptation for committing academic misconduct of all kinds.
“It’s not just about making students feel that academics are important. Students already do that,” he said. “It’s about seriously considering the incentives that students experience around grades.”
Part of that is to rethink the idea of grading on a curve. That popular practice means instructors award only a fixed percentage of As, Bs and Cs, regardless of how well each student performs. Instead, a student’s work is judged against that of other students, intensifying the competitive environment.
In their study, “Online Cheating Amid Covid-19”, published in September, University of South Carolina economists Eren Bilen and Alexander Matros warn against grade curving, saying it incentivises students to cheat – especially if they think others are doing it.
To pass, students have to outperform at least half of their classmates. “Thus, a student’s chance to pass the class without cheating would be very slim,” write the authors.
The researchers say there are parallels between online testing and the competitive world of online chess, where cheating is so pervasive that one popular club, Chess.com, revealed in August that it shuts down about 500 accounts a day – including for hundreds of titled players.
In one comparison, Bilen and Matros studied Google search data for the three days in May when high school students took the advanced-placement exams simultaneously, as they do every year. But this was the first time the College Board administered the high-stakes tests without proctors and simply warned test-takers that plucking answers from the Web would probably “earn fewer points than students who use their time to apply their own learning to develop a logical response”.
Without proctors, test-takers hoping for college credit took full advantage, the researchers found. At 2pm on May 12, searches for “derivative” and four other calculus terms spiked through the roof as the test began. The next day, searches for “literary elements” also rang the bell – followed by “literary techniques”, “diction”, “imagery” and “allusion”. That, of course, was the English test. The next day’s physics AP prompted a similar pattern.
As a result, their study strongly supports online proctoring, and they urge universities to capture students’ screens and rooms on camera, and to photograph their ID to prevent impostors from taking the test.
Without online proctoring, the study said, “we expect that there will be widespread cheating among students”.
Beers of San Francisco State called that an oversimplification.
“Rather than promoting ways to catch students in the act of cheating,” she said, universities should teach faculty how to design classes that promote academic integrity “and deter cheating by design”. – San Francisco Chronicle/Tribune News Service
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