In their paper published this month, University of South Carolina researchers Eren Bilen and Alexander Matros, are uniquely blunt about the threat posed by the dramatic spike in cheating that’s happened during the Covid-19 move to remote learning. They also offer good ideas on how to address it.

“The implications of this paper are simple,” they wrote, “if no action is taken for online exams in the upcoming semester, there will be widespread cheating.” They add, “If universities decide to implement online exams with no proctoring in the upcoming semesters, we expect that there will be widespread cheating among students.”

Proctoring is the monitoring of test-taking, watching someone take a test. It can happen in person, in class by a professor, in person at a testing center or, when classes are online, remotely by webcam. And Bilen and Matros are right, cheating happens even when proctors are engaged but it’s rampant when they’re not.  It’s shocking and irresponsible that any school would consider testing online without oversight.

Their frankness aside, the Bilen/Matros paper is important and interesting because it draws parallels from online chess competitions, where they say cheating has also run rampant recently. The paper uses that chess research to offer a few thought-provoking suggestions for online proctoring.  

First, a quick catch up. When schools went virtual in the spring and summer, many schools deployed remote proctoring services to ensure the integrity of their exams — to deter and detect cheating. Some students objected and rebelled at the oversight, citing privacy and other concerns. Some students insisted they be allowed to “opt out” of the test proctoring.

The “opt out” idea is as silly as it sounds. Colleges have every right, even a need, to be sure their tests, grades and degrees aren’t compromised by cheating. Students should want that too. But the obvious reason the “opt out” notion is absurd is because the only alternative to watching students when they take tests is not doing it. And not watching, research and recent evidence clearly show, allows and even encourages cheating.

It seems obvious that students want to take their tests without anyone watching. It’s just as obvious that colleges should not allow that.

Back to the Matros/Bilen paper. The researchers first suggest that teachers who give online exams should not “curve” their grades based on how a student scored relative to other students. Instead, they should grade based on how a student performed compared to a pre-set standard. Curving grades, they say, punishes students who don’t cheat, increasing the pressure on honest students to skirt the rules.

Matros also suggests more oversight, not less. “Universities should implement a uniform online exam policy with at least two cameras capturing each student’s computer screen and room,” he said.  

But the paper’s biggest and most intriguing suggestion is that students actually be allowed to “opt out” of online proctoring — with a pretty big catch.

They say, in essence, students should have a choice: agree to proctoring supervision of testing with a reviewable record of the test session or waive your ability to challenge any cheating allegation, including the ability to even know the reasons you’d been flagged.

In proposing this high stake bargain, they draw on chess cheating. When players cheat in online chess tournaments, they say, the sanctioning organization’s decision is final, not subject to appeal and the sponsors never reveal how the cheaters are caught. They are simply banned for cheating, conversation over.

The reason the chess authorities never reveal how they catch players is simple and intuitive. Chess players are smart. If they know what you’re watching, they’ll cover their tracks. If a chess system records the time it takes for a player to make a move as a cheating indicator, for example, they’ll just make the fraudulent move more slowly, rending the cheating prevention useless.

Students aren’t dumb either. Matros and Bilen cite examples of students not only cheating but trying to fool the built-in detection systems they know exist. They say, probably rightly, that every time a teacher or test proctor has to show how a student is caught, the effectiveness of that tool gets weaker. Preventing cheating in college, they say could be better if it took some finality and opaqueness lessons from chess.   

“We used to think that chess could improve students’ learning performance,” Matros said. “It turns out that twenty years of online chess cheating experience may be even more important for education: we should design online exams like chess websites design their online chess tournaments now.”

Their bargain idea is fascinating and likely effective. Given the choice, students may suddenly become far more comfortable with proctoring, perhaps even recognizing that proctoring protects them as much as it protects the test and the school. If a student is testing honestly, having a record of it would seem to be tangibly helpful in dispelling any notion to the contrary.

It’s an important debate. Whatever the remedy, the “opt out” nonsense has to be reined in because, in their paper’s characteristic bluntness, “cheating should be expected in the online examination” and there’s no debate they’re right about that.

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