University cheating might be up — but don't just blame students

As universities and colleges increasingly shift classes online, some experts are warning instructors to change their approach to teaching in order to curb a perceived rise in cases of suspected cheating.

Academic integrity experts say instructors must change how they assess students online during pandemic

James Skidmore, director of the Waterloo Centre for German Studies, has started offering webinars during the pandemic to instructors to help them adjust to teaching online and curb cheating. (Submitted by James Skidmore)

As universities and colleges shift classes online during the COVID-19 pandemic, some experts are warning instructors to change their teaching approach in order to curb a perceived rise in cases of suspected cheating.

"I am hearing from colleagues not only across the country but across the world that academic misconduct has surged during the winter 2020 term, due in part to the remote pivot to online learning during the pandemic," said Sarah Elaine Eaton, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in academic integrity.

She said she's not surprised by reports of students using Google during online exams and sharing answers in group chats with fellow students.

But the blame shouldn't rest entirely on students' shoulders, Eaton said.

"Expecting students not to do that is quite unrealistic because we know that students are also under pressure to perform," she said.

"And in some cases, if the kind of assessment you're giving them tempts them into unethical behaviour, then they may make poor decisions."

Different testing needed for online courses

Eaton is part of a movement of academics who've been calling on university and college instructors to change their approach to grading and testing during the pandemic.

Sarah Elaine Eaton, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary who researches academic integrity, says it's too simplistic to blame students for cheating during online exams. (Submitted by Sarah Elaine Eaton)

"For way too long, educators have absolved themselves of any responsibility," said Eaton. "This whole pandemic has shown major cracks in our society in a variety of ways, including in our educational system."

When the shutdown forced campuses to close, James Skidmore used his 15 years of experience teaching online to start coaching fellow professors at the University of Waterloo.

His biggest suggestion to instructors is to do away with proctored or supervised exams, the basis for most assessments at universities.

"There's so many things [instructors] have to adapt to and they're not sure how to do that. They tend to rely on the solutions that worked in the classroom setting," said Skidmore. "You have to develop assessment strategies that are better suited to an online environment." 

Webcams create privacy, equity concerns

Turning to technology to supervise students is not the way to go, said Skidmore, citing a May attempt at Wilfrid Laurier University where math students were required to install a webcam to film them during their online exam.

Julia Pereira, a vice-president with Laurier's students' union, said the school eventually dropped the requirement following an outcry by students.

"They're upset about the potential additional costs, and also the privacy concerns of having someone monitor you and watch over your shoulder while you're writing your exam," she said.

Julia Pereira, vice-president of the students' union at Wilfrid Laurier University, helped fight a requirement by the school for math students to use a standalone webcam during exams. (Submitted by Julia Pereira)

Skidmore said using cameras and special software sends the wrong message to students and creates an adversarial atmosphere.

"I don't want them to think of me as the police officer at the front of the classroom always watching them, always trying to catch them doing something," he said. "I just don't like that kind of environment."

In an effort to help faculty adjust to teaching online, Skidmore said he'll continue to offer free webinars that propose replacing proctored exams with short quizzes, oral exams and group projects during the term, in the hopes of cutting down on cheating.

"You can't rule it out completely. It will happen. But you can certainly lessen the chances of it."