Online Cheating Is A Big Problem With College Students––Current Solutions Seem Problematic

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Last year, when universities went online, students were forced to spend college not in a classroom, but their parents’ living rooms. Or their bedrooms, or shared living spaces, or kitchens, or any number of rigged-up pandemic messes we can imagine students carving out. Five classes a semester: that’s at least fifteen hours of Zoom meetings per week, not including zoom meetings with professors, group collaborations, and precious, necessary social interaction. Annie Stearns, a sophomore at the St. Mary’s University in California, told NPR that, “If you’re in class, and then you have to go to office hours, that’s another Zoom meeting. And if you have to go to the writing center, that’s another Zoom meeting… People would get too overwhelmed with being on video calls and just opt out.” The burnout was real. For many fellow students, says the honor council member, cheating was easier than asking for help.

This isn’t just turning in your friend’s English paper as your own. Cheating 2.0 has gone far, far beyond that stack of papers in a fraternity basement, and catching cheaters has moved beyond throwing random phrases into google and seeing what picks up. Profs have turned to proctoring programs, most of which involve serious privacy violations.

It’s a mess.

And it turns on a fundamental question: how do we do school?

Cheating Reports Increase Across The Country

Many students, such as those involved what the university’s newspaper calls a “cheating epidemic” at USC Santa Barbara, involve unauthorized collaboration: students use apps such as GroupMe to share exam questions and answers. GroupMe was also implicated in three major incidents at the University of Missouri last year — involving more than 150 students. Missouri University spokesperson Liz Clune says students were “sharing screen shots and answers to tests.” At California State University Los Angeles, students in a GroupMe chat “shared answers and took credit for the work of others,” according to The Golden Gate Express.

Then there’s Chegg.

You don’t know Chegg? University kids are laughing at you. You don’t know Chegg.

Chegg is what Insider Higher Ed euphemistically calls a “‘homework help website.'” Students pay a subscription fee and post questions on their website; Chegg brags that their questions are answers by experts “in as little as thirty minutes” (Inside Higher Ed has found that the average is 46 minutes). While Chegg has an honor code prohibiting cheating, a new study found that, “the number of questions posted on the site in five different science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines increased by 196.25 percent in April to August of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.”

These numbers seem consistent with cheating scandals. At Texas A&M, students taking a finance exam were found answering questions faster than they could read them by using Chegg. At Georgia Tech, kids were caught posting final exam questions there. A whooping two hundred out of eight hundred students — that’s a full quarter of an eight-hundred person class — cheated with Chegg on an NC State statistics course.

And it’s not confined to state schools. The Air Force Academy, Boston University, and Ivy League University of Pennsylvania all reported increases in cheating incidents.

Bring In Big Brother

So the private sector stepped up in the form of e-proctoring services such as HonorLock and Proctorio. These give remote services access to students’ computers and monitor variables — such as excessive eye movements, too much cutting and pasting, or even being kicked off their server — that could signal honor code violations. As of October 2020, over 400 universities, including Harvard and Columbia, used Proctorio, possibly the most controversial software of all.

A browser extension, Proctorio requires students to to have access to a high-quality camera and mic. Using this camera, they must verify their identity via driver’s license. Protorio then seems to require students to perform a 360-degree scan of their space:

Then, according to a Twitter thread by Erik Johnson, a “security and privacy researcher” calling out Proctorio and its founder, Mike Olson, “A Proctorio agent will review and verify the test taker’s room scan” and “live id check.” Proctorio will allegedly flag the following as indicative of possible cheating, Johnson says: “changes in audio levels, abnormal clicking, abnormal copy & pastes, abnormal exam duration, end times, eye movements, # of faces, head movement, abnormal movement of the mouse.” It also compares students to others in the class, measuring students against their peers’: “copy/pastes, resizes, audio spikes, head & eye movements, keystrokes.”

He claims that a professor can access that 360-degree scan of a student’s room —compiled to look like a Google streetview — and so can Proctorio.

Moreover, once Proctorio is installed in a student’s browser, it’s always active. There’s no way to tell how much data it’s collecting from that browser, or when it’s collecting it. Students on claim that Proctorio can also access data from computers on the same Wifi network, creating privacy issues for students — or students whose parents — may work sensitive jobs with sensitive data.

Students Hate SpyWare

Students hate spyware. And it’s not because they want to cheat. Rightfully, petitions point out that the software’s inherently classist, assuming a student’s access to a quiet room, well-working microphone, and quality webcam. Moreover, it’s also ableist. One student claims it doesn’t work with screen enlargers; as another student, Emma Harwick, says on a petition to drop Proctorio from Miami University, “As a student with severe AD/HD, Proctorio is not conducive with my disability. It is physically distressing to sit still & keep my vision trained on one object for long periods of time. Proctorio is legitimately designed to consider my symptoms problematic, & will report them if noticed… My symptoms & disability are not problems that need to be reported/solved/disciplined.”

They also suspect the program is monitoring more than their tests, and they resent it.

And students joking about their professors watching them break down on camera clearly isn’t quite joking. There isn’t enough room for their tweets, but this one is typical:

Then there’s this…

Clearly, none of this e-proctoring has anything to do with cheating — and neither do students’ objections.

Where’s The Cheating Coming From?

Ken Leopold, a chemistry professor at the University of Minnesota, told NPR that, “I can’t see Proctorio or some equivalent entirely vanishing from the university at this point… We’re sensitive to the students’ concerns, but at the same time, we have to uphold academic integrity… If you’re going to give an exam remotely, you have very little choice.”

No. You don’t have much choice — in our current schooling method, which prioritizes education that encourages students to memorize information, spit it out, and forget it. Teachers spew facts; students ingest them. They’re given tests in which they disgorge them. Easy-peasy. Pablo Freire calls it the “banking method.”

Cheating’s simple because school asks nothing but a simple recitation of facts. Rather than trying to stem a tide of students turning to Chegg by violating their right to privacy — scanning their goddamn bedrooms! — we need to rethink school.

What if we allowed and encouraged collaboration among students — true collaboration, not one-person-does-all-the-work?

Why are we requiring exams? What purpose do they serve? Why are students required to answer all information in a course correctly all at once, in a predetermined amount of time? Can’t they try again?

What should a test look like? What form should an exam take? What creative approaches can we take to education that move it into the real world and off a screen as much as possible? What about presentations? What about real-world application?

If students are cheating their way through these classes and still succeeding at their professions, why are they paying for these classes? Where’s their value? What are they actually learning, other than more effective means of cheating?

As we move back into face-to-face learning, these are serious questions a university system needs to answer. Forget scanning bedrooms and installing malware. If students turn to cheating, we need to ask why.

Other than honor code violations, it doesn’t seem to matter if they do.

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