Technology’s Catch-22 in Higher Education

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This item was first published in EDUCUASE’s Industry Insights column. It so happens that 2018 is EDUCAUSE’s 20th anniversary year. We’ve been remembering the history of online education, particularly the technologies that made it possible and necessitated the necessity for online proctoring, alongside EDUCAUSE.

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Consider how technology was available to a normal college student 40 years ago. Classes were mostly held in person in 1978, with assignments written by hand or typed on a typewriter, research conducted in a library, and literature only available in print. Let’s fast forward 20 years to 1998, when distant education was just getting started. Many students used their own personal computers for assignments, research was still done in the library, books were still mostly provided in print versions, and students could only use a dial-up modem connection to get to the Internet.

Technology now pervades every aspect of a normal student’s life and identity. Students have the option of attending college online, on campus (or a combination of the two), completing assignments on any number of devices, and most courses only provide digital textbooks. There’s no denying that technology has altered the way students approach their academic careers.

Technology has altered not only a student’s college experience, but also the higher education industry as a whole. Educators have modified their teaching and student-centered learning strategies. Colleges have adjusted their curriculum and program delivery to match the online learning model. Technology advancements have enhanced educational access while also allowing for a more individualized approach to both teaching and learning. Technology is helping to improve access, improve the student experience, and, in some cases, lower the costs of education. From massive open online courses (MOOCS) to flipped classrooms, to partnerships between companies and universities to create new and innovative degree programs, technology is helping to improve access, improve the student experience, and, in some cases, lower the costs of education.

The Catch 22

Despite all of education’s technological advancements, there is one area that remains a double-edged sword: academic dishonesty. There has always been a sector of students who try to game the system and cheat on exams, as long as teachers have been training pupils. Academic dishonesty is not a new concept. However, in the last decade, cheating tactics have evolved at the same rate as innovation. Although some typical cheating methods are not new, technological advancements have provided a plethora of new choices. TESO has seen it everything as an online proctoring provider.

Some methods do not rely on technology:

  • Dogs were placed in a room with test-takers. Post-it notes strewn across their tummies
  • Notes scribbled on the ceiling Notes scribbled on the inside of a water bottle’s label
  • Notes scribbled on a pizza box’s inside.
  • Outside a test-window, taker’s friends hold up poster boards with notes.
  • Using a doppelganger or imitation of a test taker

A low level of technology is used in some methods:

  • A test-desktop taker’s wallpaper with notes
  • Keeping a backup device with notes or answers hidden
  • Plagiarism in a written exam by copying and pasting from outside sources
  • During a test, using messaging apps to cooperate
  • To steal questions, read questions out loud to a recording system.
  • A second person in the room is responsible for answering questions that are read aloud.
  • Taking questions by copying and pasting
  • Taking advantage of a snapshot feature in order to steal questions

Then there are high-tech approaches:

  • Using virtual machines to pass back and forth questions and answers
  • Using small earpieces and a third party reading the test-replies taker’s
  • Taking images of exam questions using a button or eyeglass camera
  • Rings of students concoct elaborate schemes involving a slew of fictitious identities.

Technology has not only broadened the types of cheating possible, but it has also allowed cheaters to disseminate their tactics to the general public via social media, blogs, and websites. The exact advances that have increased educational access have also spawned a cottage economy of cheaters selling exam content and acting as proxy test-takers.

Is there a correlation between the rate of cheating and the rate of innovation?

It is more attractive than ever for a student to cheat, thanks to modern technology and a multitude of information available to teach pupils how to game the system. Does this imply that more pupils are cheating? Certainly not.

Bill Bowers conducted one of the first large-scale examinations of academic dishonesty in the United States in 1964. In his survey of 1,000 students from 99 universities across the United States, 75 percent admitted to engaging in one or more acts of academic dishonesty. Researchers Donald McCabe and Linda Trevino conducted the study in nine of the same schools in 1996 and discovered that the percentage of students reporting serious instances of academic dishonesty climbed from 75% to 82 percent. Dr. McCabe and the International Center for Academic Integrity conducted additional study over the last decade, finding that 68 percent of undergraduates acknowledged to cheating.

These figures from more than 50 years of empirical study show that the incidence of self-reported cheating among college students has been reasonably stable, if not slightly declining, over the last decade—between 70–80 percent. Even our own ProctorU data show that unpermitted resources have been deleted prior to 79 percent of assessments so far in 2018, indicating that three-fourths of test-takers have the capacity to cheat.

Technology is used to combat technology

As a result, we can see how technology has benefited and harmed educators. Expanded innovation has resulted in increased access to education via online approaches, but technological advancements have also resulted in new and varied ways for students to devalue that education through cheating. A new industry—online proctoring—emerged 10 years ago to protect the integrity of online programs in order to counteract emerging ways of academic dishonesty occurring online.

Those dedicated to avoiding or exposing academic dishonesty have been playing a cat and mouse game with cheaters since the beginning of distant education. Tech-savvy kids find new ways to trick the system with each new innovation. And as new methods of cheating are found, online proctoring services like TESO develop new techniques to detect them. Artificial intelligence and supervised machine learning are now being used in online proctoring models to increase security, indicate suspicious behaviors that a proctor might miss, and identify more dishonest actions than ever before.

In our own experience, incorporating artificial intelligence behind all proctoring sessions prevents and detects more cheating—even our live proctoring services, where a real proctor observes each exam session, is now backed by AI. This technology is learning under our guidance and supervision. With each proctored exam, it gets wiser. It detects things that the human eye and ear can’t perceive in real time. It’s interesting to see how technology can be applied in new ways to help improve outcomes for those of us who like to geek out on technology.

So, What Happens Next?

When Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, made his famous prediction, Moore’s law, in 1965, he predicted that the rate of technological innovation will be exponential in the future decades. However, he had no way of knowing how that technology would manifest. He had no idea that 40 years hence, we’d all be carrying supercomputers in our pockets. Even today, predicting what the next big item in higher education technology will be—or what the next huge cheating strategy will be—is tough. We do know, however, that technology will continue to aid us in improving our strategies for catching cheaters. We can confidently predict that when a new breakthrough hits the market, students will try to exploit it, and we’ll be there to stop them.

Please contact us if you’d like more information about TESO and how we’re leveraging technology to ensure the academic integrity of online programs. Citations:

  1. William J. Bowers, Student Dishonesty and Its Control in College (New York: Bureau of Applied Social Research, Columbia University, 1964).
  2. Donald L. McCabe and Linda Klebe Trevino, What We Know about Cheating in College: Longitudinal Trends and Recent Developments, Change 28, no. 1 (January–February 1996): 28–33.

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