Halting cheating in MOOCs may require a little homework for faculty

Many online programs have turned to advanced proctoring technology.

Spy technology fit for a James Bond movie might not be necessary for curbing cheating in massive open online courses (MOOCs). Academic dishonesty could be foiled in a decidedly more analogue way, University of Virginia researchers say.

Faculty members concerned that students are consulting Google’s everlasting well of knowledge during MOOC quizzes, tests, and final exams can cut down on cheating by simply creating multiple forms of an exam – potentially a simpler solution than the high-tech anti-plagiarism programs that can detect keystrokes and monitor students’ actions during online tests.

In the journal Research & Practice in Assessment, UVA Curry School of Education assistant professor J. Patrick Meyer and doctoral student Shi Zhu advocate the far less sophisticated anti-cheating measure as a way to ensure academic quality during the spread of MOOCs throughout higher education.

Ensuring that all the forms of an online exam are equally difficult would require some homework from professors bent on stopping cheating, Meyer and Zhu wrote. The test forms would require a common scale “so that scores have the same meaning and interpretation.”

Meyer’s and Zhu’s suggestions come as virtual proctoring programs have made significant advancements as online course enrollment increases, with software able to detect the rhythm of how a student enters a password, for example.

See Page 2 for examples of how students have Googled their way to an A+.

“Cheating by obtaining test items or answer keys in advance of the test can be countered by the use of multiple test forms,” Meyer said. “However, this practice comes with its own complications. In order for the course to be fair, one version of the test cannot be more difficult than another. They all must have the same level of difficulty.  Every test must measure the same level of learning.”

Only with solid safeguards against cheating, experts say, can internet universities show that their exams and diplomas are valid—that students haven’t just Googled their way to an “A+” or gotten the right answers texted to their smart phones.

“I think it gives credibility to the entire system, to the institution and to online education in general,” said Jennifer Clay, 31, who is studying accounting at Western Governors University, an online nonprofit institution that enrolls many working adults like her.

Higher education officials said ensuring that online courses – including MOOCs – aren’t fraught with academic dishonesty is a key to mainstream acceptance.

“Online courses are under scrutiny to show evidence of integrity in ways that face-to-face courses aren’t,” said Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University in South Carolina.

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