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Cheating becoming an unexpected COVID-19 side effect for universities

Cheating on assignments and exams at universities is as old as the institutions themselves. And helping students cut corners on course work continues to be big business. 

Some schools are seeing an increase in academic dishonesty

Like many post-secondary institutions, the University of Alberta is tackling new challenges as more coursework moves online during the COVID-19 pandemic. (David Bajer/CBC)

Cheating on assignments and exams at universities is as old as the institutions themselves. And helping students cut corners on coursework continues to be big business. It only takes a quick online search to find companies that offer to help students write that essay or provide test answers in real time. 

"It's pretty global that there was a rise in cheating in the winter semester," Sarah Elaine Eaton said, an Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary's Werklund School of Education who's extensively researched academic integrity.

It's still too early for most universities to tell if and by how much academic dishonesty has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic forced students out of the classroom.

But MacEwan University does have some initial figures tracking this from March 15 to the end of the semester. They show a 38 per cent increase in academic dishonesty compared to the previous school year.

We explore this with Brent Epperson and researcher in political science and graduate ombudsman at the University of Alberta. 8:08

Contract cheating, the process where you substitute someone else's work as your own, increased nearly 10 times at MacEwan during the 2019-20 academic year compared to the year before. And the number of academic misconduct hearings during the 2020 winter term doubled 2019 figures. 

"It's always an issue," Paul Sopcak said, MacEwan University's Coordinator in the Office of Student Conduct, Community Standards and Values.

Paul Sopcak, MacEwan University’s Coordinator in the Office of Student Conduct, Community Standards and Values, has noticed a spike in cheating this winter term. (Supplied by Paul Sopcak)

A sudden shift online

One of the factors that might be contributing to academic dishonesty was classes and coursework moving more online, said Sean Waddingham, president of the Students' Association of MacEwan University.

"The sudden move to online made their classes a little harder to complete," Waddingham said.

"And you could see how the sudden move to online could make cheating easier."

Rowan Ley, the Vice President External at the University of Alberta Students' Union, also described the sudden change from in the classroom to online as "stressful."

Rowan Ley, Vice President External at the University of Alberta’s Students’ Union, has concerns about privacy while taking tests remotely. (Supplied by Rowan Ley)

Questions of privacy

Remote proctoring software is being used by more post-secondary institutions to monitor online exams and ensure cheating isn't taking place. For example, some services could make sure you don't switch to a different window while being tested.

But having this type of surveillance in students' homes has raised huge privacy concerns. 

 "We have heard that some students aren't allowed to leave the room during the exam," Ley said. 

"Even if you are doing an exam in person, you can leave to go to the washroom." 

Additional costs for more online surveillance is also troubling to some students, as Sopcak points out it creates some privacy issues and can add a lot of stressors for students.

Sarah Elaine Eaton is calling for greater federal oversight on companies that allow students to cheat. (Supplied by Clayton MacGillvray)

Lack of legal oversight

While some countries have oversight on companies that encourage cheating in post-secondary institutions, Canada has no legislation making term paper mills or assignment completion services illegal. Offering this third-party assistance to cheat is illegal in New Zealand and Australia has proposed similar legislation.

But Canada's lack of similar legislation means we don't know what the scope of this industry is in this country, Eaton said.

"These online contract cheating companies are flourishing during the pandemic," Eaton said. "Students aren't their customers. They are their victims. In Canada we have no idea what the scope of the industry." 

Awareness, education and a new way of teaching

Many post-secondary institutions plan to keep using an online teaching model into this fall semester and possibly beyond, which requires a different teaching method.

"The right tools for an online course, isn't the same as a face-to-face course," Eaton said. 

"People were really doing this in a rush with no training and no idea of how to properly assess students online." 

Multiple choice tests, for example, are the first type of assessment that will need to go in a post-pandemic world. But many educators see this as an opportunity to approach teaching in new ways. 

"This is an opportunity right now for faculty members to reflect on their teaching methods and on their assessment methods," Sopcak said. 

"We have to start looking at cheating from a pedagogical perspective and not a technology one." 

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