This commentary originally appeared in Real Clear Policy on September 17, 2014.
As online education grows, so do the ranks of its critics. One of the charges leveled by online learning's doubters is that it is easier for students to cheat on exams given over the Internet. One report quotes a college senior who has taken three online courses as saying, "If the teacher schedules an exam, you can have a bunch of people in one room sharing textbooks and taking the test at the same time." Doubtless, no one wants to make it easier for students to cheat, robbing both them and society of the character- and mind-strengthening struggle from which moral and intellectual excellence grow.
According to one report, "the rate of students who admit to cheating at least once in their college careers has held steady at somewhere around 75 percent since the first major survey on cheating in higher education in 1963." Having taught several college courses online over the past year, I shared the concern over whether the same — or even more — rampant cheating is occurring online. I thus investigated the issue, with a focus on the evolving technology aimed at preventing online cheating.
This technology is impressive — so much so that the real problem today with cheating is almost certainly concentrated in traditional classrooms, not online.
The largest provider of online proctoring is ProctorU, which serves more than 500 partner schools. The company's technology allows students to take their exams from virtually anywhere in a secured environment. Since 2008, ProctorU has monitored nearly one million exams for test-takers in more than 75 countries. In an effort to see how the sausage was made, I recently witnessed a demonstration of tProctorU's security protocol in order to experience what the student experiences during the course of a proctored online examination.
Having taught college for a couple of decades, I am all too familiar with the plethora of cheating tactics employed by students. Armed with this knowledge, I tested whether such tactics can outsmart ProctorU's secured online framework. I was happy to find that they cannot.
Notes can't fly, either on the student's desk or on his or her hands or wrists, because the online proctor (a real person) can see everything in the student's room. Before taking the test, students must do a 360-degree webcam tour of the room to spot notes (whether on the test-taker's desk or on the wall behind the computer screen). In addition, the webcam tour will spot any others the test-taker has recruited to be present in the room for "assistance," and all others are made to leave the room. Ongoing surveillance prevents others from entering the room during the test, and also keeps students from using their cellphones to solicit answers from others via texting. The webcam monitoring also will spot any "Bluetooths" in students' ears, thus preventing them from masquerading the solicitation of answers from others as merely reading the questions out loud.
What about students Googling the answers? Most plagiarism today comes from Wikipedia, social-networking sites, and other online resources where students can collaborate and "share" work from previous classes. This is prevented when schools opt to employ ProctorU's secure browser, which disables the web-search function during the test (unless the professor indicates such searches are acceptable). Even when schools do not choose this option, students' on-screen behavior is monitored in real time via screen-sharing technology. If a student is seen attempting to Google answers, the proctor will give a verbal warning and, if needed, intervene to prevent the breach. Often, schools prefer that proctors document such acts and report them back to the instructor.
Another cheating tactic is for a student to have someone else take his or her online test. In addition to requiring test-takers to provide photo IDs at the start of every exam, ProctorU employs practices used by the banking and health-care industry, including biometric data, to authenticate students' identities. To give one example, schools can opt for the company to employ an algorithm that can tell from the pattern of a student's keystrokes who he or she is. (Only two in every 10,000 individuals have the same keystroke pattern.)
In short, having witnessed various cheating tactics for years in a brick-and-mortar classroom setting, this teacher couldn't make a dent in ProctorU's security framework. The widespread, salutary effect of this is clear when we recall that at public universities, which the majority of students attend, roughly half of classes are mass-lecture courses populated by hundreds of students. What hope has a professor, aided only by a graduate assistant, of ferreting out cheating in this needle-in-a-haystack setting? Not much. From my days as an undergraduate student at a public university, I both saw and heard accounts of whole rows of students in lecture courses copying answers off the one or two students who had studied for the exam. The statistics cited above prove that my observations were far from unique. Instead, they are the rule.
Given the scandalous rise of grade inflation, about which I've written in this space, you almost wonder why students today feel the need to cheat. After all, studies show that in the early '60s, 15 percent of all college grades awarded were A's. Today, 43 percent of all college grades are A's. In fact, an A is today the most common grade given in college. At the same time, it is reasonable to conclude that "successful" cheating only exacerbates the grade-inflation crisis.
However this may be, there will doubtless continue to be criticisms of online learning as an alternative to traditional instruction.
But increased cheating should not be one of them.
Thomas K. Lindsay directs the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and is editor of SeeThruEdu.com. He was deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under George W. Bush. He recently published Investigating American Democracy with Gary D. Glenn (Oxford University Press).