Online Exams and Cheating

The results of a new meta-study on cheating, published in this fall’s edition of the Journal of Distance Learning Administration, indicate that online courses that rely heavily on unproctored, multiple-choice exams are at greater risk of being cheated on than similar face-to-face courses. And while there are mechanisms available to forfend dishonesty in online exams, they can be costly and inconvenient, and may not be widely used.

The meta-study, conducted by researchers at University of Connecticut and Union Graduate College, looked at three prior studies examining cheating as it applies to online courses versus face-to-face, and three studies that looked at cheating as it applies to proctored exams compared to unproctored ones. “The six studies, considered as a group, imply cheating risk is less correlated with instructional format (online v. face-to-face), and more correlated with unproctored online assessments,” the authors write.

The problem, of course, is that online assessments can be hard to proctor. There are companies that offer proctors and testing centers where online students can go to take the exams in the same controlled environment as traditional students customarily use, the authors note. But those centers and proctors come with fees. And since many online students choose distance learning because they need the flexibility of a program that is asynchronous and non-placebound, having to show up at a certain time and place to take exams tends to defeat the purpose.

The efforts of many online programs to enroll international students might also undermine the secure-site method. For an online student taking a course from some far-flung locale, showing up at a testing center could go beyond mere inconvenience.

Software companies provide some potential fixes for the problem of proctoring online exams. Starting at $2,000 for an institutional license, a company called Respondus offers a product, which can be downloaded remotely, that integrates with the institution’s learning-management system and locks down an online test-taker’s ability to browse the Internet while taking an exam.

Of course, this does nothing to prevent students from Googling answers on another computer or on their smartphones — which is why another company, called Software Secure, Inc., offers similar anti-browsing software with its Securexam Remote Proctor — along with a $200 piece of hardware that takes periodic fingerprint readings as well as audio and 360-degree video recordings of the test-taking environment to make sure test-takers are not being fed answers the old-fashioned way.

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