The pandemic helped usher in a new normal for online education, but the opportunities also bring challenges around exam integrity. Gitanjali Goswami tracks the trend of academic cheating cases in recent years, and analyses how universities are exploring and improving methods to assess students’ calibre.
“Typically, in a face-to-face exam room… students will be sat at desks spaced around the room,” explains Dr Thomas Lancaster, a Senior Teaching Fellow in Computing at Imperial College London in the UK. “They can’t obviously see each other, they will have to hand over their mobile phones, or put them in their bags out of reach at the start of an exam, and there will be someone in the room, an invigilator or a proctor, to make sure that they are not looking at their notes.
Around a year into COVID-19, many higher education leaders and supporters of digital and online education identified the pandemic as a watershed moment for shifting university thinking on how students are taught. In December 2020, Professor David Maguire, Interim Principal and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Dundee in the UK, noted that resistance towards online education had all but disappeared in the university space.
“What’s happened in the last eight months as a consequence of the pandemic has really had a major impact on universities, and it’s made this change [to bolster online and digital teaching], I think, much more urgent,” he said during the 2020 Reimagine Education Conference and Awards. His observations had already bore out a month earlier in startling fashion, with the Learning and teaching reimagined report, co-authored by Universities UK, Advance HE, Emerge, and Jisc, the latter of which he serves as chair.
According to the report, where there had been reluctance to adopt online prior to the pandemic, there was now an acceptance of its need. Of the students, lecturers, and leaders surveyed, 90 percent agreed that lectures would go online, compared to 10 percent in previous years. When speaking to leaders, Professor Maguire added, few believed the changes would be rolled back.
Looking at recent trends
Concerns around academic integrity aren’t new. The 2009 paper, Academic dishonesty, ethical norms and learning, co-authored by Gunnel Colnerud and Michael Rosander highlights that when either the students lack clarity of examination rules or rules are insufficiently explained, the occurrence of dishonest behaviour rises. Other reasons include stress and the fear of losing grades.
The pandemic created a perfect storm to exacerbate the negative side of these factors. It is the proctor’s role to provide clarity for students, but as Dr Lancaster notes, many exams went without. Rotem Arie, a teacher assistant at Brandeis University in the US, argues in her 2021 paper, Academic Dishonesty and COVID-19: A Biological Explanation, that stress was aggravated during the pandemic. Combined, this led to a global spike in academic cheating cases.
According to online examination integrity platform, ProctorU, there was a drastic rise in the rate of proctors addressing the presence of unpermitted resources before exams commenced. The 2021 Exam Conduct and Integrity Report found a more than eight percentage point increase. During the same period, the proportion of active interventions by proctors on test-takers skyrocketed. In a single month comparison, ProctorU observed three times the ‘confirmed breaches’ in November 2021 compared to November 2019, jumping from 8,038 cases to 26,543.
While the stressors of COVID-19 may have exacerbated issues around exam integrity, some experts observe that these occurrences also a symptom of rapid change. Dr Valerie Denny is Vice-President of the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) and Assistant Professor of Decision Sciences in the College of Business at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide in the United States.
“While research is still underway, it is safe to say that cheating for permanent online instruction changed little, while temporary online instruction increased, and some would say dramatically,” she says. “Often courses were converted to the online modality within a few days or weeks and without the benefit of instructional design best practices, and without the benefit of remote monitoring tools. Instructional designers and instructors did the best they could with this forced change.”
Finding effective solutions
Addressing the integrity concerns that online exams present has led to some radical solutions. “In offline classes there is an absolute guarantee that there is no cheating at all because there are supervised examinations,” says Professor Shalabh, Professor and Dean of Academic Affairs at the Indian Institute of Technology- Kanpur.
“In the online classes… it is nearly impossible to say what was happening because nothing was happening before of our eyes.”
Professor Shalabh tells the Higher Ed Report that as a teacher, he needs to keep in mind that “students are human beings, and when they are given an opportunity [to cheat], they have an internal fight inside them of what is right and what is wrong”. His team’s approach was to remove any incentive students would have from cheating. Instead of grading students on whether or not their response to a question was correct, students were instead evaluated on how they answered an exam question.
“I said [to my students] … ‘if you have attempted [a question], even if the answer is wrong, then also you will get the full marks’,” he says. “Now I have removed the advantage of giving the right answer. That means [from student’s perspective] … then why should they use unfair means?”
To swiftly adapt to the transition, services such as CodeTantra and ProctorU were also used to facilitate proctoring online examinations. Services such as these require students to keep their cameras on. ”
If they move quite frequently and abnormally then the software will freeze
, and the students will not be able to appear in the examinations” Shalabh tells the Higher Ed Report.
Addressing new challenges
Online proctoring services eased the process of adapting to complete online examinations, but Dr Lancaster says no system is completely fool proof. “There are ways around them and it is also possible to accuse students of cheating just because they happen to, for example, move their mouth while working on their exam paper while thinking aloud. This happens in a real exam situation as well,” he says. “You’ve got to follow-up with certain things.”
Students have also expressed their displeasure with online proctoring tools because of privacy concerns. Some students don’t want to be seen in their home environment, particularly if their primary area of study happens to be their bedroom. “All these concerns are quite rightly being raised by students, and student bodies. And I think that the sector has to consider this.”
The resumption of in-person examinations at universities might also present its own challenges. Dr Lancaster says he is concerned that students may be unprepared for the exam hall. “There is the expectation that students who haven’t taken an exam in-person for up to two years are ready and able to go back into an exam hall and they know the best ways to learn, and the best exam techniques. That’s quite strange.”
Such transitions have opened a gateway for further research to demonstrate “the efficacy of permanent online learning and… the importance of proper course design [for] different modalities,” says Dr Denny.
“As we move forward and further away from the pandemic, my hope is that some of the lessons from permanent online can be integrated back into the classroom environment, particularly with respect to course design which focuses on misconduct and cheating prevention.”
This article was abridged from 2023 QS World University Rankings Higher Ed Report. Download the full edition.