Cheating gone savvy
Paul Golding

Since the emergency transition to online classes in March 2020 there has been a debate in higher education circles regarding student academic integrity. Some say cheating has increase significantly since the transition to online classes. The evidence to support this claim is at best anecdotal, though Virginia Commonwealth University reported that academic misconduct soared during the 2020/21 school year to 1,077 — more than three times the previous year. Still, others have claimed that cheating has remained the same without providing any evidence.

The prestige or reputation for quality of an academic institution is often more important than its actual quality. That is because the reputation represents the perceived excellence of the institution which guides the decisions of prospective students to enrol and for donors to provide generous support. Within this context, tertiary institutions build and leverage their reputation to create competitive advantage.

One of the mainstays of the reputation of higher educational institutions is academic integrity (AI). The International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) gives this definition: “The commitment from students, faculty, and staff to demonstrate moral behaviour in their academic lives.” The importance and impact of AI is demonstrated by its absence. In the absence of an honest, moral environment educational activities, such as research and work to earn diplomas, certificate and degrees, lose their value for students and society at large. For example, without AI in research, there would be even more COVID-19 vaccines sceptics, and Nicki Minaj's vaccination claims would have a measure of validity.

Since the pandemic many higher educational institutions have substituted the traditional invigilated exams and assessments to their digital equivalent and other forms of assessment, including take-home exams. A central issue in this debate is whether the different assessment and examination types are comparable in securing the integrity of the assessment or exam environment. One of the prevailing views is explained: “From a practical standpoint, cheating online may be easier to accomplish than cheating in face-to-face classrooms... The lack of direct observation increases the temptation and opportunity... In addition, students are often more computer savvy than their instructors... Furthermore, students may have less commitment to the integrity of virtual classrooms than traditional classrooms as online classes have less embedded collegiate tradition and less physical monitoring by professors or others.”

There are a variety of motivations for students to cheat. These include not studying properly, pressure from parents to raise grades, pressure to maintain grades for scholarship, need to apply for a scholarship, working and studying, the availability of assistance in cheating from peers, need to be promoted, and the cost to re-sit. An additional reason given for cheating, reflecting the signs of the times, is the unprecedented level of stress and uncertainty caused by COVID-19.

To understand the scope and prevalence of cheating in the current environment I conducted an online survey of approximately 650 Jamaican tertiary students and compared it to a similar survey done in the USA by Kaplan 2021. The first question asked: What is the prevalence of cheating in online subjects you are taking? Fifty-nine per cent of the respondents were not sure, 14 per cent reported that it was somewhat common, eight per cent extremely common, extremely uncommon and somewhat uncommon accounted for nine per cent and 10 per cent respectively. The comparative response between Jamaica and the USA to this question is indicated in the Table 1.

The second question asked students to compare the level of cheating pre-COVID-19 to current online classes. Sixty per cent were not sure, 17 per cent said more common, 12 per cent less common, and 11 per cent said about the same. The comparative response between Jamaica and the USA to this question is indicated in the Table 2.

The comparative data suggest that there is a greater level of cheating taking place in US tertiary institutions than in Jamaica. However, the temptation to draw this conclusion should be tempered. The phenomenon of cheating requires self-reporting and some level of self-incrimination, which students may be loath to do. In addition, there may be cultural reasons Jamaicans may be less likely to admit to cheating — notice the high percentage of Jamaican's who don't know.

Anecdotal evidence suggest that Jamaican students are as adept at cheating as any other country. The information received from a number of tertiary institutions indicate that performances in some courses such as maths and physics have improved by more than 100 per cent since COVID, while the incidence of reported academic misconduct has fallen from 10 per cent to less than one per cent. Many students justify their cheating, by explaining that the shift from face-to-face has affected their ability to learn and retain information, so they are just trying to get by. As one student puts it this way, “Sir the objective is not to fail.”

The methods of cheating that have been used during the pandemic run the gamut — through the use of virtual chat students collaborate on answering examination questions; students copy from another student by screen sharing; using Tik Tok to offer tips; students present work for assessment without attribution or reference to the original source. Plagiarism is not as common since the use of anti-plagiarism software such as Turnitin. The success of these software has spawned another type of cheating, contract cheating — where a student submits work that a third party has completed. During the height of the pandemic there were advertisements by Jamaican “entrepreneurs” on social media and chat groups offering to impersonate and or complete maths exams for students. In addition, there are essay writing services offered online like Essayservice, EduBirdie, Essayshark, and others who aggressively market their services to students on social media platforms offering services based on writing level, assignment type, etc. For discipline-specific areas there are Mathway, QuickMath or WebMath. In one feature students take a photograph of their assignment and submit to receive a solution. There are other websites like Chegg, PaperHelp, Course Heron, and Studypool, which are promoted as places for students to get help, but they are used for cheating.

To prevent online cheating some universities have used online proctoring service like Honorlock, Respondus and ProctorU. These technologies monitor students through the use of webcams and their computer activity to verify the identity of the test taker and detect and prevent students from receiving unauthorised assistance from third parties or opening additional tabs on the computer. Students have, however, complained about the intrusive nature of these tools. For example, before the exam starts students must provide a 360-degree view of their exam space and during exams your camera and audio must remain on. The software uses artificial intelligence to keep track of the student's eye movements and monitors the motions of the mouse pad. Any activity deemed suspicious is flagged. These services cost upwards of US$15 per student per exam and may be prohibitive for some institutions, and for students may involve technical and equity issues.

Turnitin has created a software to prevent contract cheating, Authorship for Investigators. Business Wire, an American company that disseminates press releases from companies worldwide, explains that the software uses forensic linguistic analysis and natural language processing to help investigators efficiently compare differences in written work and gather the evidence needed to investigate potential cases of contract cheating.

I will not make a declaration on whether there is more incidence of cheating pre- or during COVID-19. What is clear, however, is that the incidence and nature of misconduct is changing with digital technology. Companies who are providing the services to students and those providing software to academic administrators appears to be in a derived demand loop, or, as one persons has described it as, an arms race.

Students perceptions of AI and cheating is also changing and this has created a disconnect between academic staff and student's belief about academic honesty. For instance, during the pandemic students received take-home exams without clear guidance as to what constituted cheating; therefore, students used whatever digital assistance they could. Most students didn't consider this as dishonest behaviour, and they also argued that it was not explicitly stated in policy. From a policy perspective academic misconduct and its definition will need to be re-examined for the Digital Age. From the instructor's perspective, more authentic forms of assessment need to be developed and used.

Professor Paul Golding is former dean of the College of Business and Management at the University of Technology, Jamaica. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or pgolding@utech.edu.jm.

Paul Golding

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