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Faculty concerns over academic integrity in online courses have eased since 2020, when the transition to online learning first began, according to a new study from Wiley.
The research and education company found that 77 percent of instructors surveyed last year believed students were more likely to cheat online than in person—a decline of 16 percent over Wiley’s spring 2020 survey, in which 93 percent of instructors responded that way. Jason Jordan, senior vice president of digital education, said the shift most likely stems from instructors’ adjustment to online learning.
“We don’t have a definitive answer, but we believe it’s likely that as instructors have acquired vastly more experience with online learning in recent months, their concerns about academic integrity have lessened,” Jordan said. “It may also be that instructors now have more experience with mitigating techniques than they did in 2020.”
The study, which surveyed over 2,800 college instructors and 682 students in the U.S. and Canada in September, found that chemistry instructors were the most likely to believe students cheated more online than in person, at 85 percent, followed by instructors in anatomy/physiology and physics, at 84 percent each.
David Rettinger, president emeritus of the International Center for Academic Integrity, which is conducting its own survey on academic integrity, said the high level of concern about online cheating at the start of the pandemic may have reflected the stress and anxiety students and faculty faced when institutions abruptly shut down and moved classes online.
“All of the changes that we made to our classes had wide-ranging effects, some of which were not that great,” Rettinger said. “It led to students being disoriented and making some decisions that really didn’t reflect their general level of integrity.”
Nevertheless, Rettinger said it’s worrisome that 77 percent of instructors still believe students are more likely to cheat online than in person. Problems with academic integrity are exacerbated in online learning, he said, but he noted that instructors who initially struggled to engage with students online are now doing a better job and students have grown more comfortable learning online. Additionally, there are a lot fewer online classes now than there were at the start of the pandemic, with most institutions restarting in-person instruction this academic year.
“All online learning is not created equal, and the ones who do it really well will achieve better outcomes,” Rettinger said. “I hope that the long-term takeaway is that when students aren’t engaged by the work they’re doing, and when the context isn’t good for their learning—regardless of whether it’s virtual, hybrid or in person—they’re going to be at risk of misconduct.”
Instructors expressed a range of concerns about the impact of online cheating. Seventy-four percent of those surveyed said they’re concerned about students not learning, 52 percent said mitigating cheating is time-consuming and 52 percent said they feared students won’t be prepared for the future.
Just over half of all instructors said they were worried about academic integrity in fully online classes, compared to 46 percent who said they were worried about cheating during hybrid instruction and 33 percent who identified in-person instruction as a worry.
Rettinger noted that the mode of instructional delivery is less relevant to academic integrity than ensuring that students have opportunities for authentic learning that allow them to understand the course material.
“A hastily constructed online course is going to lead to students feeling isolated, and it’s going to leave them feeling less connected to the resources they need to be successful,” Rettinger said. “And of course, all the stress that comes with a pandemic and social isolation is a perfect storm for students to cheat.”
No wonder professors are worried: 59 percent of students said it’s “easier” or “significantly easier” to cheat online than in person, and 51 percent of students said the pandemic has made it easier to cheat. However, while the majority of student respondents believe it is easier to cheat online than in person, 52 percent of students said they are no more likely to cheat in an online course; only 28 percent said they were more likely to cheat online.
“Students indicated using a range of tactics that likely violated campus academic integrity policies, including referring to notes during exams when it wasn’t allowed and looking up information online,” Jordan said.
According to the survey, more than 60 percent of instructors in all classes reported catching as much as 20 percent of their class engaged in academic dishonesty. Among those, 90 percent reported seeing cheating online, 91 percent in hybrid instruction and 92 percent in face-to-face classes (where it is notably easier to see).
Professors are cracking down on cheating during online instruction. Fifty-five percent of instructors reported they used online proctoring software in the past 12 months. Additionally, 36 percent of instructors used more open-ended questions in homework and exams, 34 percent created question pools so that not all students received the same questions, and 28 percent gave more project-based assignments.
“One of the most important trends we’re seeing is that instructors are learning how to create a culture that supports academic integrity across learning modalities,” Jordan said. “They are also talking to students more about the consequences of cheating.”
Rettinger said he’s encouraged by the “big-picture” assessment trends instructors are employing to minimize academic dishonesty, including assigning project-based work, de-emphasizing deadlines and placing more importance on revision and improvement.
As for why students cheated, 71 percent of students attributed it to pressure to get good grades, 43 percent said a degree is expensive and there’s pressure to do well, and 26 percent said others are cheating. Additionally, 44 percent said there’s too much work and 42 percent blamed the challenge of balancing school with other responsibilities.
Rettinger noted that with poorly designed online courses, students don’t need to think of new ways to cheat; they can just look at their class notes or use the internet to look up answers. However, he said the expansion of online for-profit homework services, exam-writing services and cheating websites may also have affected academic dishonesty.
“That’s perhaps why the rates of cheating have gone up,” Rettinger said. “The things that were relatively hard to do in person are now relatively easy to do, and so I think students are doing that.”
Because of the pandemic, he noted, some students lost access to resources institutions provided for them—including tutoring and other academic supports—and they felt isolated and lost communication with classmates. Those added stressors may have led students to cheat, he said.
“When you add up students’ justification for cheating, and their lack of confidence in their own work, their lack of social connection, the stress that they’re under—every one of those things would point towards more cheating, absent the pandemic,” Rettinger said. “And so it’s no surprise to me at all that those things are leading to more cheating in the pandemic.”