What Technology Can Do in the Battle to Curb Cheating on Campuses

By Bill Loller, Vice President of Product Management for Turnitin

Academic misconduct can have a profoundly deleterious effect on institutional reputation. The MyMaster scandal in 2014 left a black eye on Australian universities from which they are just starting to recover. All too often, misconduct is swept under the rug and fingers are crossed, hoping it goes away and no one finds out how unprepared the school was to deal with the aftermath. Institutions continually underestimate how student and faculty scandals can damage their reputation which can affect recruitment, fundraising, grants, and academic standing. Serious scandals have the potential to affect credentialing, especially for smaller private colleges.

In order to find a solution, it’s important to understand how misconduct has evolved. Early on, simple cut and paste plagiarism seemed limited to students swapping papers. However, instances of falsified or copied documents and data began to show up in academic research. When modern technology emerged to detect and deter these types of cheating, cheating evolved. A new kind of Arms Race was underway, and as detection tools grew in sophistication, so too did the cheaters tactics.

Our most pressing problem today is that plagiarism has evolved to the hiring of contract cheating sites or ghost writers for student work or for research, and existing technology cannot detect this. This practice is still theoretically plagiarism but not because another person’s work was copied. The difference is that the original work is created by someone else, which bypasses the plagiarism checking software’s scrutiny.

It is also troubling that cheating has moved beyond essays into STEM classes, assignments, and research. We’ve found large numbers of falsified documents in linguistics, copied and ghost-written coding in Computer Science courses, and perhaps even more unsettling, ghost-writing in the health sciences and engineering fields. Imagine a world where an engineer who designed a bridge actually did not complete all of their assigned homework and instead hired someone else to do it for them. This is the type of cheating occurring on campuses in increasing numbers.

As our technology evolves to catch these cheaters, the cheaters develop new tactics. We find ourselves dedicating greater and greater resources and vigilance to staying abreast of the problem. The potential impact on all constituents including students, instructors, academic integrity officers, and on the overall institution is too great to not dedicate ourselves to finding a solution. But what can we do to solve the problem?

Dealing with misconduct involves multiple steps: suspicion raised by the instructor, typically through a technology tool that has identified suspected plagiarism; escalating the suspicion to a dean or academic misconduct office, and investigation by the academic misconduct office or department dean, an interview with the student, and finally, a formal hearing with associated sanctions and penalties if appropriate to the case.

Because of the multiple steps and time taken to address misconduct, cases frequently go unreported. This is the first mistake in the complex chain to solve the problem. Not only is the offender encouraged to repeat the activity (a fact that is has been reported in several academic studies Bain, 2015; Stephens, 2017) but the teachable moment is lost. Students who get away with cheating one time tend to repeat their behavior and can perpetuate the problem by encouraging others.

The responsibility to deal with misconduct goes beyond the institution’s leadership. IT departments play an increasingly important role in enacting technology to help identify cases, and in installing safeguards to halt proliferation. IT departments can block advertising through the school network. The leadership can enforce removal of flyers pasted on campus bulletin boards that advertise paper mills. IT departments, who are responsible for tracking the electronic trail of evidence, need to have the latest technology resources to not only help faculty identify suspicious documents but also to deter the use of cheating sites. And ultimately, giving them a method to produce ironclad evidence for academic misconduct investigations will show students that cheating will not be tolerated and they will get caught.

Even with exemplary leadership, sound instructional design and practices, punitive policies, monitoring, and the latest technology to thwart cheating, the human element may still be the most important. We cannot over stress that the number one way to stop this epidemic is to help students develop their own personal commitment of integrity. Students are learning and they will make mistakes. Technology is only a support system enabling faculty and educational leaders to make decisions based on individual factors. The latest tools will go a long way, but they are only tools.

Bill-Loller-TurnitinBill Loller is the Vice President of Product Management for Turnitin, the leader in helping students write better, with integrity. Previously, Bill was the Chief Product Officer of Jobvite, and the Product Management Leader for the IBM Commerce Customer Analytics business through the acquisition of Tealeaf Technology.