Students cheat more in online courses — right?
Most professors certainly think so. Sixty percent of the nearly 2,000 respondents to Inside Higher Ed‘s 2019 Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology last fall said they believed academic fraud occurs more frequently in online than in face-to-face courses (remember those?). And 93 percent of respondents to a recent survey by Wiley said they believed students were significantly more likely (62 percent) or more likely to cheat in an online course than in a face-to-face course.
Many colleges seem to think so, too, and they ramped up their use of proctoring systems and other technology tools this spring as COVID-19 forced them to deliver most of their instruction remotely.
The facts, though, are less clear. Historically, the proportion of surveyed students self-reporting that they have cheated on an exam at least once in the last year “has been at about 11 percent for a couple of decades,” Tricia Bertram Gallant, director of the academic integrity office at the University of California, San Diego, said in a webcast during Wiley’s Wicked Summer Camp for Online Teaching this month.
While that’s almost certainly underreported, because people who “doing things that are socially undesirable … are not usually up front about admitting those behaviors,” Bertram Gallant says, the fact that the numbers haven’t changed directionally even as online education has taken hold suggests that virtual learning hasn’t changed the academic dishonesty landscape significantly.
“Ever since the first monks were saying, ‘Oh, those new styluses are allowing them to illuminate those manuscripts much more easily, that’s clearly dishonest,’ there’s been somebody who thought the new technology makes [cheating] so much easier,” David Rettinger, a professor of psychological science and director of academic programs at the University of Mary Washington, said during the Wiley webcast. “The reality is that there has always been people using technology for good and for ill. I don’t think the internet is an epochal technological change — it’s just another in a series of the wheel turning.”
One logical response to perceived or real cheating is stepped-up enforcement, and “if you don’t have an enforcement approach, you’re letting down honest students, saying, ‘We don’t care,’ and that’s not OK,” Rettinger of Mary Washington said in an interview. “Set the expectations, do what you need to do to identify cheating and have a fair and firm policy for responding to it.” He added, “The honest students, the students working their tails off for those C’s, have to feel like the institution has their back for this all to work.”
Many colleges and universities turn to various forms of technology to monitor students and try to ward off cheating, but “that often winds up resulting in an arms race or being a game of whack-a-mole,” said Rettinger, who acknowledges being philosophically opposed to systems. (For more thorough explorations of the pros and cons of proctoring systems, look here and here.)
“How can I stop cheating?” while an understandable question for instructors to ask, is the wrong one, Harrison said, because it leads them to a “pedagogy of suspicion that colors our whole frame of reference.”
“We end up focusing on the worst possible negative outcomes that the most malicious and malintended student would engage in, rather than starting with, ‘What’s the best teaching and learning experience I can construct and deliver for the vast majority of students who are there to learn authentically and who want to succeed?'” Harrison said.
Bertram Gallant asks instructors to “keep your educator hat on when you’re thinking about this and when you’re responding to cheating when it occurs,” rather than their “police hat,” she said. The better question than “how can I stop cheating?” is “how can I best facilitate and assess learning?”
Or, as Rettinger put it bluntly, the best way to minimize cheating? “Teach better.”
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