How do you stop online students cheating?

A colleague recently referred me to an article written by Sean Coughlan, the BBC News Education Correspondent, entitled ‘How do you stop online students cheating?’ In this article Coughlan discusses the growing trend for online learning and the steps that some institutions are taking to ensure that students engaged in online assessment are not cheating. These include:

  • students undertaking exams under webcam supervision
  • a software that profiles students’ key strokes and syntax to ensure it really is the right person undertaking an online examination
  • global examination centres where students attend for examinations (kind of defeats the purpose of distance learning don’t you think?).

My concern is our preoccupation with the idea that assessment involves examination. But what does an examination test exactly: a student’s ability to recall information; a student’s ability to commit facts and figures to memory? In the current education environment that prides itself on developing ‘transferable skills’, ‘employability’ and a passion for ‘lifelong learning’ should we really be so focussed on examinations? Shouldn’t we be thinking more creatively about how students learning online can, for example, be assessed on their ability to apply their learning, work with geographically dispersed teams and formulate an argument and communicate it?

Online assessment could take on the shape of any of the following:

  • Students could be asked to work individually or in small teams to prepare a page to be added to an online wiki. Suggested key headings or a template page would ensure that the research they undertake covers all relevant areas. A deadline would be given for submission. Once all submissions are made, students could then be asked to review critically one or more contributions from others. Marks could be assigned for the submitted wiki contribution. If working in teams, students could be asked to grade the contributions of others in their team, to ensure that everyone pulls their weight. An additional mark would be given for the reviews of the work of others. This type of assessment would test a student’s level of knowledge and understanding and IT skills as well as their ability to locate and use information relevant to their subject, manage their time to make a submission before deadline and work and communicate effectively with others.
  • Students could be asked to make a subject-relevant contribution to an online journal club, along with a personal review of the article. A level of understanding of the topic would be required to select a suitable article, but the review would require students to think critically, formulate arguments and communicate well about their subject. For an added layer, students could again be asked to review another’s work. Marks could be awarded for the suitability of the article, the quality of the written review and the comments provided to others.
  • Students could be asked to contribute a five-minute audio podcast to a larger ‘audio magazine’ type project on a subject of your choosing. They could select a format from an audio report, an audio interview, an audio game show type format, a radio drama format or any other creative idea they may come up with in consultation with you. These days audio files can be easily created using smart phones or other readily accessible devices. If students want to edit their audio files, free software like Audacity is readily available. Once all contributions are made, they could be collectively edited into an audio magazine podcast that could be used as a future student resource or even a public engagement tool. The audio file could be submitted along with a report outlining why the format and content were chosen. A reflection could also be requested on what the student might like to have done differently. This activity engages students in disseminating their learning via verbal and written communication methods. It also engages them in reflective practice, which will be beneficial to their future development. Marks could be divided between the audio contribution and the report.

Of course these ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. Assessment can be a very creative process with which students are more likely to engage and benefit from in the long run. And the added benefit of all these assessments is that they can be a resource for future cohorts of students.

This type of assessment that takes place over a period of time also means that cheating becomes more transparent. An online tutor or lecturer who is actively engaged with their students, via such methods as email, online fora and video conferencing, is able to see the evolution of a student’s ideas towards a piece of work. This makes it much easier to deduce whether a student has been engaged in any kind of academic misconduct.

The role of unmarked formative assessment in identifying academic misconduct should also not be underestimated. Formative online assessment provides students with the opportunity to test their understanding of facets of their learning. In addition, if the results are being gathered by the virtual learning environment, the online tutor or lecturer is also aware of each student’s progress. This provides the tutor or lecturer with the opportunity to intervene prior to marked assessment, but also gives them an indication of the student’s ongoing ability in the lead up to a summative assessment piece. Indeed, adding in compulsory but unmarked formative assessments as stepping stones to a summative marked assessment makes this even more likely. If a student who has struggled all along and did not make use of support turns in an outstanding piece of summative work, it might be time to look for other indicators of academic malpractice.

I would be very interested to hear your thoughts about online assessment and cheating and hope that you will share them via a comment. The list of potential online assessments I have given above is obviously far from exhaustive and I would welcome you posting some of the assessment ideas you have seen or used in the comment facility.




About Cathy Thomas-Varcoe

I have a passion for distance learning and the opportunities it provides for lifelong learning. I have spent the past 11 years focussing on delivering quality distance learning. Drawing on my nursing background, I initially worked for the Royal College of Nursing Institute who ran undergraduate and postgraduate distance learning programmes validated by the University of Manchester and then for The Open University Health and Social Care Faculty. More recently I was a learning solutions consultant for The Open University’s Centre for Learning and Professional Development. In January 2012 I was appointed as the Distance Learning Lead for the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester. I have been involved in courses from concept to delivery, but the bulk of my work has focussed on writing and conceptualising distance learning courses.
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