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Online Testing, Is It Fair?

By Brittni Brown / February 2016

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With more than 6.4 million students currently enrolled in some form of online education, it is safe to say online learning is here to stay. While the fact remains the online class has carved out a niche for itself and has been accepted by the majority of educational institutions, significant concern continues to linger over the ability to effectively test students in online settings. Namely, opponents of online education argue testing can be unfair and difficult to monitor for cheating.

Unlike the traditional in-class exam, where teachers are able to visibly monitor students for a set period of time, online exams limit the capacity for standard forms of educator observation. Determining when students are opening other browsers to find answers or working alongside a friend is difficult to determine. Students may be taking the test from across the country or in vastly different time zones, which can make it challenging for teachers to be available while they are completing the test. Although opportunities to cheat in an online setting seem limitless, new technologies are helping to crack down on students attempting to get away with it.

Some studies have suggested that both cheating and plagiarism are pervasive within standard classrooms, let alone within the online sphere. Many estimate that between 35 and 40 percent of uncited material, online or otherwise, is copied straight from the source. Unfortunately, teachers simply do not have the time to scan all documents before grades are assigned; even if they did, finding the exact source can be incredibly difficult, and sometimes completely unfeasible.

Even more challenging is a problem unique to online learning: Hiring a third party to take a course by proxy. Students can simply create an account, request a "tutor" for a specific class, and pay a reasonable fee of approximately $1,200 for a guaranteed B or better in the course. This has become so popular that there are entire companies dedicated to this task. They even have student reviews! What they call "academic assistance" would be labeled as breaking the honor code at most universities.

Using Technology the Right Way

Online anti-cheating programs such as TurnItIn have lessened teacher loads precipitously when it comes to dealing with both online and in-class plagiarism. Students submit their written work, which is scanned and analyzed for text that matches other sources. Students are able to view their results and make corrections before turning in a final submission, which goes directly to the teacher. The databases utilized by these types of programs are vast and typically catch plagiarism with high levels of accuracy, giving educators the satisfaction of knowing the work has been verified. Like most anti-cheating technologies the school district or university pays for a subscription that enables all faculty to set up accounts and use them for their classes.

Confirming that the work a student is turning in is their own is a much pricklier problem to solve. Without previous knowledge of the student's learning abilities or patterns it can be nearly impossible to identify cheating. But a number of impressive technologies have been developed to fully monitor students to crack down on imposter test takers and other serious forms of cheating using tools such as webcams, facial recognition software, and typing pattern authentication.

One such example is ProctorTrack. According to a number of reviews, the technology is one of the most sophisticated and one of the few that utilizes a webcam to monitor and track students while they are testing. The program can draw comparisons between the student signing in to take an exam and photos attached to student records. If the two do not match, the program will not allow the exam to proceed. Furthermore, it utilizes either palm or knuckle recognition software to cross-check current tests with previous records using fingerprints. First time test takers are expected to provide the school with verified prints before the semester begins. Without the right ones, the exam cannot even be opened. ProctorTrack has received enough positive reviews from users that it has been fully implemented into the online curriculum at Rutgers University Online.

Other programs, such as Coursera, incorporate a different type of verification method—typing pattern recognition. Coursera uses statistical algorithms to monitor the rate and rhythms used while typing, which tend to be unique to individuals and is a surprisingly accurate method of identifying when someone other than the student takes over the keyboard. Especially in written exams, programs such as these can make online testing far less unfair.

Technology to authenticate tests clears fears of online cheating, but is this level of scrutinization just one step too far? Should students be given a bit more trust than webcam monitoring and scanning software affords? Speaking with The New York Times, Rutgers students—who had been exposed to these programs—felt the software was "excessive" and enforced the belief that the university has no faith in its students to make ethically correct decisions. Although many students feel somewhat violated by monitoring, nearly 75 percent self-report being prone to cheating in courses at some point, meaning something must be done.

Regardless of how students feel toward programs designed to catch cheaters, many online educators are in support of them. Jay Halfond, a professor at Boston University's Metropolitan College, cites the changing relationship between students and institutions as one of a few major factors associated with cheating. In his Huffington Post article, Halfond discusses how threats of depersonalization can make cheating that much more tempting in online classrooms. But with the right level of teacher input and technology, we have the opportunity to profoundly reduce cheating.

To help prevent and catch cheating in online learning environments teachers can:

  • Address issues of depersonalization by taking the time to get to know students and the quality of the work they are likely to turn in. Building relationships with students not only discourages cheating, but can also help students feel more comfortable asking for help when they need it—a key component in student success.
  • Create new tests each year to help prevent copies from circulating. If that is infeasible, for those who are time crunched a better alternative would be to use a tool to randomize questions and answers on a test. This way students are given different versions of the exam, making it difficult to cheat. Taking it one step further, consider using a problem generator.
  • Challenge students with varying testing and assignment types such as writing prompts, reading quizzes, and research projects that require unique, critical thinking rather than test bubbles or multiple-choice questions that can be easily memorized. An additional extension could be to have students explain the thinking behind their answers.

Technology can be used to take some of the guesswork out of determining which students aren't following the rules and fill the gaps teachers cannot cover such as:

  • Preventing students from working together on individually assigned coursework.
  • Monitoring the contribution of each student in group assignments through version/revision tracking tools.
  • Identifying third parties completing coursework.
  • Catching students copying straight from another source.

In some cases, monitoring technology may mean students are watched even more closely due to constant video streaming or type pattern monitoring associated with the software. Although cheating cannot be fully squashed, fears that online students have an easier time getting away with unethical behaviors may no longer hold true in the long term. With the advent of these new monitoring technologies school districts, universities, and teachers concerned with online testing equality now have the means to do something to rectify the situation. With proper oversight, online testing can be just as fair as its in-class counterpart.

About the Author

Brittni Brown is a current master's candidate at the University of Idaho. In her free time she enjoys a variety of outdoor activities including hiking, biking, and camping.

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