The Ethics of Cheating Detection software

By Natasha Abrahams, National President, Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations

Natasha Abrahams, National President, Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations

As the Australian universities have welcomed increasing numbers of students, a challenge has presented in how to maintain a culture of academic integrity. Contract cheating, in which students outsource assessments to commercial cheating companies, has been a particular focus in higher education circles in recent years. This issue has been given profile by University of South Australia researcher Dr. Tracey Bretag, who undertook ambitious research to determine the prevalence and reasons for contract cheating.

Most students do not cheat, with completing assignments and exams being an integral part of their educational experience. Student who put in the effort to complete their assignments honestly find it deeply unfair when they see peers getting away with cheating. They fear that this will drag down the value of their own degrees if their institution gets a reputation for rampant cheating. More concerningly, those who observe peers successfully cheating may then rationalize that they should cheat their assessments, too. All universities have internal procedures to deal with students who have been caught cheating, but there is a widespread perception that most students who cheat do so undetected.

Several solutions are in progress to stamp out contract cheating and promote a culture of academic integrity. The Australian Government has proposed legislation which would make the provision or advertisement of contract cheating services an offence. This targets suppliers of contract cheating services, rather than penalizing the students who purchase cheating services. At CAPA, we have provided feedback on this legislation, expressing our support for the concept and emphasizing that this legislation should only target commercial providers of cheating services. We are also pleased to be a part of the Department of Education’s working group to produce a statement of commitment to academic integrity, which would be signed by new students upon enrolment.

In addition to national efforts to promote academic integrity, universities and non-university higher education providers are increasingly turning to the use of cheating detection software. With educational institutions enrolling ever-larger numbers of students, while at the same time cutting down on face-to-face classroom time, it is more difficult for teaching staff to identify when a student has submitted work that has been completed by another person.

The most prominent example of plagiarism detection software is Turnitin, a tool which allows students or their teachers to check assignments against a massive database of assignments and web content, in order to determine if written material has been borrowed from elsewhere. Other academic integrity software companies are beginning to flourish. At the University of Melbourne, Cadmus software is currently being trialled to determine if a student’s work is their own. Students type their work directly into Cadmus (as a replacement for Microsoft Word), and their keystroke patterns are captured by the software to determine if the assignment is being written by the student.

The use of cheating detection software must be balanced against students’ rights to privacy. The trial of Cadmus software was a cause for concern for students feeling that their privacy is being invaded. It also means that the student must work how the university wants them to, for example, a student who prefers to hand-write assignments before typing them up could be flagged for investigation. Other cheating detection software may be even more invasive. I attended a presentation on an upcoming cheating software package which monitors the student through their webcam, with any automatically detected unusual activity being flagged for further investigation by the provider. For many students, this would be an alarming proposition.

Even Turnitin is not without controversy. Assignments that are checked through Turnitin are stored in the company’s database, becoming an asset which future assignments can be checked against. Arguably, Turnitin is unethically using students’ assignments for profit.

Beyond issues of privacy and profits, the impact of cheating detection technology on a student’s relationship with their institution must be considered. Students will feel as if they are not trusted, and this will impact their attitude to their education. With the compulsory use of cheating detection software, all students are being treated as cheating suspects.

It is clear that, with the aid of technology, educational providers can detect cheating behaviours. The real dilemma is whether or not they should.

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