This spring, after her campus had gone remote, Allison Kays, CPA, Ph.D., assistant professor in the practice of accounting at Emory University in Atlanta, caught six of her students cheating.
Kays had given a quiz through Canvas, the school's learning management system, but presented students with different variables on their tests. As was her usual practice during the coronavirus pandemic, she allowed her 40 students to take the quiz at different times, and some of the early takers "shared the quiz with the students who hadn't taken it yet," she said. She caught the offenders, she noted, because "the students who cheated turned in an answer that used a number they weren't given.
"I had never had a cheating incident I was aware of before COVID," she said.
Enter the world of remote learning, where cheating — if students are so inclined — is easier than ever. When professors are not watching them in class, particularly during exams, students can more readily cheat or plagiarize. They have access to the internet on their laptops or phones, so they can quickly look things up. What's more, students — who may be spread across various time zones — now have longer windows in which to take exams, giving ample opportunity to share questions and answers with classmates.
Students cheat today for many reasons. They don't feel as "accountable" at home as when they are sitting in a college classroom, Kays said. They cheat "because they don't have the time to prepare or because they choose not to prepare," said Francesco Crocco, Ph.D., instructional support manager in the Office of Distance Learning at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Students also cheat to improve their grades, especially if they need to maintain their grade point averages to retain a scholarship, said Alan Flury, CPA (inactive), an accounting instructor at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), in Atlanta. Flury caught one of his students cheating in the spring, he said.
"The main reason is that they are desperate," summarized Arnold Schneider, CPA, Ph.D., a professor and area coordinator for accounting at Georgia Tech. "They can't handle the material, and they convince themselves that the only way they can get a good grade is to cheat."
Faculty can take these motives into account when attempting to deter cheating in their courses. Kays, Flury, Crocco, and Schneider offer the following tips for preventing unethical behavior when teaching remotely:
Be direct. Simply saying "Don't cheat" is not enough, Kays said. Tell students about your policy on cheating at the beginning of the course, and be straightforward and outline the consequences. Tell them you will catch them cheating if their exams mirror those of other students. "The more precise you can be, the better," she said.
Design hard-to-cheat-on exams. Students can more easily cheat on multiple-choice tests, so move away from tests based on memorization and repetition, and shuffle questions around as well to deter wrongdoing. The software provided by textbook publishers can also compile exam problems that give each student different numbers to use.
Create exams that require "higher-order thinking,” such as open-book assessments, case studies, short essay questions, and presentations, Crocco advised. Flury suggested randomly selecting questions for each student via programs in a learning management system like Canvas. But "be careful that you don't create exams that are not even in terms of complexity," he advised.
Dictate shorter exam times. To avoid Kays' predicament, when possible, give your students a shorter window in which to take the exams, "so they can't talk to each other," she said. (Many universities set policies in this area that faculty must adhere to. Georgia Tech, for instance, asks faculty to offer students flexibility via a multiday window in which to turn in their exams, Flury said.)
Use remote proctoring or other tools. Numerous programs exist to help universities curb cheating. Some schools use lockdown browsers, such as Respondus, which prevent students from browsing the web when taking exams. Others use plagiarism-detection software, such as Turnitin, which helps catch students who lift material from other sources.
And many schools use remote proctoring programs, such as Honorlock, ProctorU, or Examity, which allow professors to watch their students take exams via video cameras on the students' computers, either during the exams or later on. In the less-costly, non-live versions, faculty and their teaching assistants watch the videos after the exams are over. The software flags any changes in sound or changes in eye and other movements in the room. While this artificial intelligence technology doesn't guarantee an end to cheating, it gives students the "fear of being caught," said Flury, who uses this technology in his online courses. "We expect them to abide by the honor code, but it's a lot easier to verify using proctoring software," he said.
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette offered remote proctoring and anti-plagiarizing tools pre-COVID to a small group of academics who got certified in the technology internally. In response to COVID, many professors are now teaching remotely and choosing to use these programs, Crocco said.
Remote proctoring tools clearly can help hinder cheating, which is the technology's biggest benefit. But there are downsides as well. Students may have to pay for this software, Crocco said. In addition, students may not have good internet connectivity, noted Kays. Students must also go through the onboarding process to get set up with the technology, said Flury, though it works smoothly once it’s in place.
The use of remote proctoring tools may also raise privacy concerns. Be aware of your institution’s policies regarding remote proctoring before using this technology. Georgia Tech, for instance, recently informed faculty that students who participate in a remote class where a camera or a profile image is used are in essence consenting to have their video or image recorded. For classes that require student participation and that identify students’ names, faces, voices, or comments, faculty must obtain written consent before sharing the recordings outside class. Students also cannot record or share recordings without permission of their instructors. "We also need to be careful that videos taken by the proctoring software are only viewed by authorized personnel (namely the instructors and teaching assistants)," Flury noted.
Don't be too trusting. Professors often see the good in their students, but today instructors "need to have their guard up,” Kays said. Schneider suggests reviewing exams thoroughly and looking for similarities between students’ answers. "Scrutinize them carefully to see if there are things that are extremely similar from one student to another," he advised.
Embrace change. Remote learning pushes faculty, along with their students, to learn new technologies and adapt to new processes. This can be both problematic and positive. Professors should first reach out to their college technology or distance learning departments for help in making these changes, Crocco said. Once faculty learn these skills, they’ll be able to use them in the future, when hybrid learning — a blend of face-to-face and remote — may be commonplace. "We're going to see a much more tech-savvy faculty coming in this fall,” he predicted.
— Cheryl Meyer is a California-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.