Online anti-cheating software a new tool available to educators

An honour code is something many first encounter as children, in scouting, an effort to instill in impressionable youth a sense of trust and honesty, of right and wrong. To quote the Greek playwright Sophocles, “better to fail with dignity than win by fraud,” and other such noble sentiments.

In an educational context, behaving honourably generally means that students will not give or receive aid during examinations, or in the submission of assignments expected to contain original work. Consequences are likely to include personal embarrassment, social shaming, and loss of academic status (including probation or expulsion).

The code means a great deal in some institutions. At West Point, America’s premier military academy, it is the bedrock of a cadet’s existence, a measure of accountability that eclipses all other expectations.

But last December, dozens of these officers-in-training were accused of cheating on a mathematics examination, taken remotely, online, during the coronavirus pandemic. Out of a freshman class of 1200, 73 cadets were implicated. Some have withdrawn from the Academy, and others have been disciplined for their failure of character.

Empirical evidence suggests that when students feel stressed, or see an opportunity to gain an undetected advantage when the stakes are high, some will cheat. Peer influence plays a role, as do high expectations from parents. Often, it is a simple cost/benefit analysis performed by the risk-taker.

Don’t think for a moment that cheating doesn’t happen in Canadian schools, or in our own backyard here in Niagara, and at all levels.

Educators may give patronizing assurances to the public that such behaviour is rare or non-existent amongst their students, even those struggling with online studies. But what is abundantly clear, if anecdotal observations are to be believed, is that remote learning has become the great enabler of academic dishonesty.

Forget the days of whispering an answer to fellow miscreants in the examination room, or slipping a piece of paper, a “cheat sheet,” to your friend at the next desk. In 2021, students have answers programmed into their smartphone or Apple Watch, and taped to the wall in front of their computer. They text answers to classmates, and use online software which offers formulas and solutions to scientific equations. Students can engage “essay mills” that will sell them assignments, or even contract with them to write all their reports for the semester.

Several Toronto-area high school math teachers, in a Canadian Press report last December, characterized cheating practices as a “free-for-all” at virtual high schools, given student access to such software apps as Photomath, Mathway, and Chegg, which are capable of scanning a photo of a math problem, and prescribing a step-by-step algorithm on how to solve it. In their defense, these companies argue that their technology simply reinforces concepts already learned in the classroom, and provides on-demand math assistance accessible to all students.

To combat this new wave of high-tech cheating, a nascent industry of “online proctoring” companies now offers schools cheating-detection software and surveillance systems. It is a lucrative business worth tens of millions of dollars, with droves of high schools and post-secondary institutions signing on in an effort to keep students honest.

A November 2020 article in the Washington Post detailed how companies with names like Proctorio and Honorlock use cutting-edge tech to lock down students’ web browsers, track their computer activity, and pay voyeurs to spy on students as they take their tests. Artificial intelligence software can spot “behavioral flags” using face scanners to verify a test-taker’s identity, and eye sensors to flag if they are gazing at length off-screen.

Predictably, this technology has also sparked a revolt by many university students, including those at UBC, Calgary, Western, Ottawa, and Carleton, protesting the surveillance measures as an erosion of trust. This anxiety-inducing backdrop has sparked heated debate, and prompted some probing questions. Is corralling a few cheaters worth the price of treating every student with scrutiny and suspicion? What values are conveyed when students are silently judged by computer algorithms, and sent the unspoken message, “We don’t trust you.” And finally, just how important are these tests, anyway?

Many members of our faculty are also reimagining their assessment methods for the remote learning environment

Some educators say that by stigmatizing all students as potential cheaters, the focus shifts away from teaching and learning to punitive measures, and wastes an opportunity for a more reflective approach to online assessment. Since stress is a key driver of cheating behavior, it stands to reason that students who feel connected, supported, and encouraged are less likely to breach the honour code.

Master teachers maintain that it is possible to measure authentic learning by replacing easily cheatable multiple-choice or true-and-false questions with short-answer items, case studies, and scenario-based projects. Many have also changed their assessment mix to shorter, more frequent, lower-stakes tests, rather than major exams, thus removing an incentive to cheat. The texting of answers between students in the classroom can also be combatted by creating and administering multiple exams for the same course, although this strategy increases the teacher’s workload.

Kevin Cavanaugh, Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at Brock, told The Voice that university officials considered a virtual proctoring system, “but the University Provost’s Office decided against it, due to concerns about privacy, information security, and pedagogical flaws that are not aligned to Brock values of a high quality teaching and learning experience for students.”

Rather than utilizing surveillance software, Cavanaugh said that Brock’s Centre for Pedagogical Innovation (CPI) engaged instructors through workshops and one-on-one consultations, supporting efforts to rethink assessments that accurately gauge the learning outcomes in a course. CPI staff helped instructors develop major assignments and create exams that are open-book or that follow random allocation of questions, thus not requiring any virtual proctoring.

“This is a major shift from traditional exams, and it has spurred innovations in assessment design that will likely continue after we are able to return to in-person classes on campus,” said Cavanaugh.

Fiona Allan, Vice President, Academic at Niagara College, told The Voice that the college is not using remote proctoring software as part of its online program delivery, but relies on a variety of measures to help maintain academic integrity, including technological tools to randomized questions, and plagiarism detection software for written assignments.

“Many members of our faculty are also reimagining their assessment methods for the remote learning environment,” she said. “For example, some are choosing to use case- and scenario-based evaluations and other authentic assessment approaches, that encourage students to make use of the internet and other information-rich digital resources, which reduces instances of cheating.”

Kim Sweeney, Chief Communications Officer for the District School Board of Niagara, confirmed that no anti-cheating surveillance software is used in DSBN schools. Similarly, Niagara Catholic Communications Officer Jennifer Pellegrini told The Voice that her board doesn’t use any sort of academic software for online monitoring, although they do employ a program called Urkund, which checks for plagiarism.

The only educational institution in Niagara identified as actively using online proctoring software is Ridley College, the region’s largest private school, with a significant international enrollment. Bruno Petitti, the school’s director of information technology, told The Voice that Ridley uses Microsoft Teams as its video conference, Apple MacBook computers, and Exam.net as its secure and easy-to-use exam platform. Created in Sweden, Exam.net’s website proclaims that it is used by 100,000 students daily around the world. Students can only access on their computer the online tools that the teacher chooses.

Petitti said that many tech surveillance companies have offered free or low-cost trials during COVID times, so it made sense to consider their products. Previously, Ridley teachers were only using Turnitin.com to control potential plagiarism.

It’s not software that we’re using to breach people’s privacy, or creep out the kids

“It gives us options to set exam time limits, allow dictionary searches, and provide access to various files and online resources, so we can really control the proctoring of the exam,” said Petitti. “We have the capability to lock down student computers to provide secure data. Information is populated into a console that the teacher can observe, but it’s not like spyware where they have a camera monitoring pupil keystrokes.”

Petitti said that he hasn’t had any negative pushback from students, parents, or teachers. “It’s not software that we’re using to breach people’s privacy, or creep out the kids,” he said. “We’re just ensuring that the exam is administered in a secure container.”

In late January the Ontario government announced that students in seven public health units would return to the classroom on Monday, Jan. 25, but online learning would remain in place for the rest of southern Ontario schools (including those in Niagara) until further notice. Parents in Toronto, Peel, York, Windsor-Essex and Hamilton were previously told their children would not be returning to the classroom until at least February 10. Schools in northern Ontario reopened for in-person instruction on January 11.

Schools in Niagara will be using online learning exclusively until February 5, with in-person learning set to resume this coming Monday, February 7.