Featured this week: Examining integrity – the consequences of taking online classes in the technological age | The Triangle

Featured this week: Examining integrity – the consequences of taking online classes in the technological age

Noel Forte, The Triangle
Noel Forte, The Triangle

The advent of online examinations and submissions through websites like Blackboard Learn has become a double-edged sword for the education system.

The format allows educators quick turnaround for grading and a simple system to keep track of scores for their students. However, this new integration of technology into academics has led to newly developed forms of cheating that aim to undermine the system. Drexel University has not been an exception to this trend.

“At the Business College we have noticed an increase in the number and severity of academic integrity issues,” Director of Instructional Technical Services Alan Hecht wrote in an email.

This cheating is obvious to Drexel professors when it comes to online examinations, and it can lead to changes in course format with the goal of cutting down on the number of incidents.

“I rarely use online exams anymore. I used to have online exams, but the cheating was obvious and rampant and did not serve the purpose required of an exam,” Drexel biology professor Karen Kabnick, PhD, wrote in an email.

Many studies around the nation have found high levels of cheating among both undergraduate and graduate students. One such study was done by retired Rutgers University business professor Donald McCabe. The survey took place from 2002 to 2011 and included 88,000 undergraduate and graduate students. It found that 43 percent of respondents admitted to cheating on either tests or written assignments.

“We’ve also had an increase in cases where students have submitted requests to various websites to have someone write a paper or take an online exam for them. Such websites often masquerade as tutoring websites, but the transactions quickly trend toward payment for coursework,” Hecht explained.

“We’ve caught several instances where a student had logged into a Drexel or textbook publisher’s website from Philadelphia in the morning but had someone from another location logging in for them later that same day to complete homework or take an exam,” he continued.

One such service is provided by the website CustomWritings.com. This United Kingdom based company will provide custom written speeches, thesis papers, dissertations and research papers to students for up to $48 per page. It can be found as the first Google Search result when the query “payment for coursework site” is entered.

“CustomWritings.com cares [about] you … Usually, the online courseworks providing companies use illegal writing resources to write an academic coursework that is also costly, due to which the students who take assistance from those companies, are caught with the accuse of plagiarism. We provide online courseworks that are affordable courseworks in cost and high in terms of quality,” their website reads.

Websites like this can get students the grades they desire, but they may not learn the material, and this may leave them unprepared to enter the workforce upon graduation.

“What we want to discourage is students paying someone to do their coursework (in addition to paying tuition) and [leaving] Drexel without the skills or knowledge to succeed in the workforce. That doesn’t do them any good, and it also taints the reputation of a Drexel degree,” Hecht wrote.

Oftentimes the programs through which assignments are submitted at Drexel have tools that can be used to identify potential examples of plagiarism. Turnitin is a submission system often used in combination with the Blackboard Learn site. The built-in feedback tool automatically highlights any sections of the submitted assignment that match entries in its database of 60 billion indexed web pages and 600 million student papers.

Drexel professors recognize that plagiarism and cheating happen. Some find a tool like Turnitin convenient in its ability to automatically check for plagiarism in a similar way to the conventional method that professors use.

“Yes, I had a few instances of plagiarism in online, hybrid and face-to-face classes. I found [plagiarism] online the same way I found it in other formats. I find [Turnitin] useful in this regard,” Drexel English professor Gail D. Rosen commented over email.

The online nature of cheating incidents involving online exams can leave traces that are useful in subsequent investigations of the incident, and the amount of this information is often much greater for online exams when compared to face-to-face exams.

“If a student cheated off of someone else’s face-to-face exam, you’d either have to catch them doing it or you’d have to have some evidence from the way they both answered questions … when looking at online exams, there is more information available such as where the person was located, the log of how they completed their exam, which students took the exam at the same time, etc,” Hecht explained.

This evidence can also lead to more significant consequences for the student involved. University officials and professors consider this online trail of evidence to be concrete, and it allows them to appropriately discipline the student with certainty that there has been no misunderstanding.

Drexel has a variety of ways by which they can proactively prevent these cheating events. These include live online proctoring and screen recording.

“Activity such as looking to the side to read from the textbook or notes or searching the internet for answers can be identified and flagged as possible violations. Some colleges at Drexel have used or tested these systems – some which use a live proctor and some which record the camera for later review by the instructor. I think these types of systems address a need concerning online exams, and it would not be surprising to see them in use more at Drexel,” Hecht wrote.

Drexel can also track where students log into examinations and assignments. Students have been reported to give out their login credentials to services that provide coursework for payments, and this activity is often discovered through a close observation of the locations that certain accounts are logged into.

Despite the obvious potential for cheating on online examinations and submissions, some Drexel professors say that the educational potential of online courses greatly outweighs the chance of academic integrity violations.

“If you offer online classes, you need to have online examinations. Some of my students are in other countries or other states. Obviously you can be more vigilant in a face-to-face setting and ask more multiple choice or other objective questions. However, you can make adjustments in an online exam. I feel that any negatives are outweighed by the positive aspects of online learning,” Rosen wrote.

So, some professors feel that the cheating leaves them no choice but to cut online examinations out of their curriculum, and some feel that the positives outweigh the negatives. How can the two viewpoints be reconciled, and where is the line drawn as far as weighing the benefits and risks?

“The question of whether the pros outweigh the cons depends on the type of assessment. The pros typically outweigh the cons for smaller quizzes which can give the instructor a better sense of how the class is understanding the basic course concepts, but the pros may not outweigh the cons or the risk of cheating when considering larger exams which count more toward the overall grade,” Hecht wrote.

The observation that the capabilities of society’s computer hardware doubles every year is a widely accepted and fairly accurate prediction called Moore’s Law. This time period of one year has since been revised, but the observation still demonstrates the massive growth potential of technology. The integration of this improved technology with areas such as education leads to new positive outcomes, but it also leads to new ways by which students can undermine the system. Online examinations and assignments are no exception to this principle, and as their prevalence continues to grow educators and administrators at Drexel and around the world continue to develop new ways of adapting to and tackling the problem of cheating and plagiarism in academics.