The Score

February 10, 2022

The episode features Dr. Amy Smith the Chief Learning Officer for StraighterLine and a leader in online education and Dr. David Emerson who is an associate professor and faculty advisor at Salisbury University. Emerson and his colleagues released a ground-breaking research report on the motivations for academic misconduct, linking academic cheating to fraud. His research has some sobering implications for how institutions deal with the issue. Smith has been outspoken on the need to fight cheating to protect the value and quality of online learning. She wrote a piece for the Hechinger Report in 2020 on this topic.

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Show Notes

High points of the conversation follow.

Dr. Amy Smith (03:01): [another] thing I think universities really owe students are accountability systems that are clear, that are well defined, and that are consistent. We often see in the research, and the literature shows us that a lot of times, a faculty member, for all the right reasons, will help a student out or try to manage or monitor cheating, and not really report it for a variety of reasons, and I’m sure we’ll get into that much throughout this podcast, but that also goes around the actual accountability system the university sets up. So, universities, different colleges, different majors, different fields report incidents differently, and then that makes inconsistencies in the accountability. So, if I’m a student and I don’t know how I’m going to be held accountable, like what’s going to happen to me, I don’t make a fully informed choice when I do make choices of how to navigate my education.

Dr. Amy Smith (16:05): So, let’s talk a little bit about deterrents, let me expand on that. So, take these 45,000 students. We have three things at StraighterLine that we set up to monitor or to prevent cheating, like you just have to try to prevent it. I’m going to go back to Dr. Emerson’s opportunity, you just don’t make it opportunistic. It isn’t available. One way we do that is everything you turn in at StraighterLine, you have to turn in through turnitin.com. So, we have a mechanism to check, “Hey, is Amy’s paper really Amy’s, or did Amy borrow Catherine’s paper, because it was a little bit better, and she submitted Catherine’s sections as her own?” We definitely do that.

Dr. Amy Smith (16:43): The second thing we also do is all final exams are live proctored. I mean, your browser will shut down if there is any hint of suspicious behavior in any way, while somebody’s watching you take your exam. So, that’s the second part. And the third thing that we do at StraighterLine is there’s actually a team in the academics side of the house that watches postings, watches online constantly. This is their job, right? This is what they do, is make sure that Amy didn’t decide to post a quiz somewhere online, and then everybody’s got the answers to a StraighterLine course. So, we have preventative measures, which are, we feel, deterrents, but humans are humans, and that’s actually what Dr. Emerson’s talking about, that decision making that really happens. I’ll pause with that. Dr. Emerson, thoughts about what I just said?

Dr. David Emerson (17:34): I agree completely. I mean, it sounds like you’re doing everything right within the online arena, right? Is denying them that opportunity, and like I said, we did find that these online real time lockdown browsers, and continuous monitoring, and proctoring of live exams, it is going to be effective, absolutely. I mean, the cheating behaviors I was referring to were unmonitored, unproctored, and the experiment that we did, when we implemented an online proctoring service, the incidence of cheating went down 87%. It went from about half, down to about 5%.

Dr. David Emerson (18:27): So, it didn’t eliminate it, but it greatly reduced it, because the problem is when you’re using an online assessment integrity tool, it only works on a machine on which you’re taking the assessment. There’s no preclusion that prevents them from looking up the answer on a different device. Now, you state that you’re not finding StraighterLine materials on other websites. Have you gone to Chegg to look to see whether or not the answers are there?

Dr. David Emerson (20:40): The students don’t like [exam monitoring] because it starts with a presumption, like Amy was saying, that everybody’s cheating. Well, they are, to a large extent. If you’re taking a class, especially if it’s a class you don’t care about very much, and your professor gives you a quiz directly out of the publisher’s textbook, out of their test bank, and you go online and take it. If you’re able to just copy that answer or question out, go over to your browser, go to chegg.com, and instantaneously the correct answer is there. And many times, from my publisher, I found the exact question with a test bank identifier attached to it, and with the correct answer immediately displayed.

Dr. David Emerson (26:34): What we believe is that each of the phases of the ethical decision-making framework, which is the Fraud Diamond, opportunity, motivation, and rationalization, can be targeted to help minimize the cheating behaviors by emphasizing those aspects of the decision-making process to minimize ultimate cheating.

Dr. David Emerson (29:00): One of the ways to decrease their motivations to cheat is to counter the incentives that are provided, through disincentives, right? The cheating decision is made under the presumption that it’s a rational calculus of, “What do I get as a result of this activity?”, versus “What are the costs, if I’m caught?” So, one of the ways you can disincentivize this activity is to make sure that there is a heavy cost for every incidence of academic misconduct, regardless of the level of severity.

Dr. David Emerson (29:58): So, if they know what is expected of them, it goes to Amy’s point that they have to be acutely aware of, these are the rules, and if you break those rules, you are going to be harshly and swiftly punished, to the point that it is a disincentive that you do not want to pay.

Dr. David Emerson (30:47): Now, I do not want to do this. It is a royal pain to go through the process to charge someone with academic misconduct, but it is the only thing, now, based on lots of research, that a harsh, severe, and certain negative outcome works, but you have to be consistent in applying it across all students, regardless of level, and regardless of the level of severity.

Kathryn Baron (33:40): And does that seem to reduce cheating in your classes, when the other students see what the repercussions are?

Dr. David Emerson (33:49): Well, that’s hard to say. One would hope, right? Because I mean, one of the ways that academic honor codes work is through peer pressure. If you can inculcate a culture where cheating is not acceptable, then presumably, peers will disincentivize them from engaging in that activity. But people are always going to be motivated, they want that diploma, they want the rewards that go with an education, but they don’t want to work for it. They will do whatever they need to do, and this is especially true more on the psychopathic end of the spectrum, where they’re there maybe because their parents want them to be there, they don’t have that intrinsic motivation.

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