While face-to-face classes are back after the COVID disruptions of the past two years, our research suggests at least some Australian universities intend to continue with fully online assessment. Students say they think cheating is easier online. There is some evidence it increased with the shift online.
Yet our research, covering 41 Australian universities, has found little evidence of changes in their academic integrity policies (which apply to all courses) and practices (which may differ from subject to subject) to counter these problems. Our particular interest was in computing courses.
The use of software to automatically monitor students during online exams, known as remote proctoring, is increasingly common. Intuitively, this technology appears to have advantages for detecting cheating. However, many have raised concerns about both the ethics and efficacy of these systems.
Life would be so much easier for educators if all they had to do was offer their students an education. But they are obliged to assess their students. It’s an integral aspect of the education process.
Unfortunately, some see the assessment outcomes, rather than the education, as the end goal.
Students rely on these outcomes when applying for jobs. Employers rely on those same results to help them decide which graduates to employ. With so much at stake, there will always be students who choose to cheat.
COVID forced hasty assessment changes
The pandemic forced universities to hurriedly rethink many practices, including assessment. One major challenge was how to supervise assessment tasks such as exams when these moved online.
Educators and researchers have reported academic misconduct subsequently increased. Academic misconduct includes cheating, plagiarism, collusion, and fabrication or falsification of data.
Our universities are required to establish policies and practices to protect academic integrity. These policies should provide for education and training on good practice and for actions to reduce the risks of cheating and other misconduct. Universities Australia has outlined principles of best practice.
Our research project explored changes to assessment practices as a result of COVID. We wanted to see how effective these might be in preventing academic misconduct. We examined academic integrity policies and procedures at 41 Australian universities that offer computing courses, interviewed leading computing educators at these universities and surveyed computing academics.
What did the study find?
We found little evidence that academic integrity policies and procedures explicitly address the circumstances brought on by COVID.
Of the 41 universities, 38 offer online or distance education for computing courses. Four offer most of their computing courses in online/distance mode. Only one offers no computing courses in online/distance mode.
But only five universities around the nation acknowledge the possibility of online exams in their policies. Even at these five there are no policy differences between online and face-to-face assessment tasks.
The inference appears to be that the rules and regulations that govern general academic integrity apply equally to all assessment tasks, including online tasks.
Some of our respondents expressed concern that current policies aren’t effective. A particular concern is the time and effort it takes to prepare a case of misconduct against a student. One academic said:
“Any excuse that a student gives is automatically believed, despite overwhelming evidence of plagiarism. Also, students claim to have not done the academic integrity module to get reduced punishments. It’s inconceivable that a year three student does not know what plagiarism is […] yet they are given warnings and no real consequences.”
COVID has changed students’ needs and expectations. Research suggests many students now prefer studying online. Universities must consider students’ need for more flexibility, which includes offering online exams.
Nonetheless, a number of our respondents noted an increase in cheating and other integrity violations when assessment moved online. Some noted this might be due in part to the difficulties students faced. One academic said:
Online exams and tests were a big challenge. Students sometimes complained that their laptops froze, or their internet connection dropped out midway through the test. Such cases demanded the need to develop a new set of questions.
The abrupt pivot to online education left little time, anyway, to make substantial changes to assessment regimes. Courses that relied on personally supervised in-class tests and final exams continued with them, simply dropping in-person invigilation. In some cases, 24-hour exams replaced two or three-hour exams, or shorter exams were conducted in a longer window.
What can be done to restore integrity?
One or two suggested approaches might hold some promise.
Many respondents noted the need to develop new types of questions. These would be designed to be less susceptible to looking up answers in web searches, collusion among students and contract cheating, where students pay others to do their work. The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency’s newly updated database lists 2,333 suspected commercial academic cheating websites, including 579 specifically targeting students in our higher education sector.
Sadly, these approaches seem invariably to involve more work for the academics. Further, they appeared unlikely to achieve the integrity typically offered by face-to-face supervised exams.
With face-to-face classes resuming, will universities restore the former assessment mix, including invigilated in-person tests and exams? Some of our respondents indicated their universities intend to continue with fully online assessment. Nobody told us their universities are amending their policies or procedures to better protect academic integrity in these circumstances.
The author would like to acknowledge all the team members who worked on this project: Sander J.J. Leemans, Queensland University of Technology; Regina Berretta, University of Newcastle; Ayse Bilgin, Macquarie University; Trina Myers, Queensland University of Technology; Judy Sheard, Monash University; Simon, formerly of the University of Newcastle; Lakmali Herath Jayarathna, Central Queensland University; and Christoph Niesel, Queensland University of Technology.