Faculty Focus


Academic Integrity in Distance Learning

The problem of academic dishonesty has become one of staggering proportions. In a recent paper on the subject, Robert Kitahara, assistant professor in the business programs at Troy University, and co-author Frederick Westfall, associate professor and regional chair of business programs for Troy University, detail a growing problem in distance learning in which students cheat on tests and assignments, then seek redress for wrongs against them when they are caught.

A connected world
According to research Kitahara has surveyed, up to 75 percent of students report engaging in some form of academic dishonesty. And it is clear that academe is not equipped to respond quickly to new threats, as students have proven remarkably able to change tactics.

“Part of our problem is, in our effort to make things more portable, we haven’t kept up. We need to put in security measures, [but we’re] behind the power curve,” Westfall says.

“It’s a losing battle; for everything we dream up, the students will get around it,” Kitahara adds.

Troy University is experimenting with tools like the Securexam Remote Proctor, a piece of hardware that connects to a computer’s USB port and records the exam as the student completes it. It also allows students to identify themselves by fingerprint at various points in the exam as stipulated by the instructor, so that another student is less likely to be able to step in to complete the exam.

The Remote Proctor may allow for better monitoring of students who are taking exams outside the classroom, but the need for such a device is the result of a cultural shift that has long-ranging implications beyond just cheating on a test or copying a few lines from Wikipedia.

“I don’t believe people will behave differently in one context than they do in another,” says Kitahara. Therefore, the student who today is cheating on a test may be the employee who tomorrow is fudging the accounting books. How many people involved in the Enron debacle committed academic dishonesty in school? How many loan officers who talked a financially marginal customer into a subprime mortgage in order to make quota were ones who thought copying from an encyclopedia was OK if they didn’t get caught?

The costs of academic dishonesty
One reason that students are able to commit academic dishonesty is that the punishments are far less onerous than the behavior they punish.

“The cost/benefit is in favor of the student,” says Kitahara. After all, it takes a great deal of investment from the university to police student behavior, verify academic dishonesty, and pursue punishment; for the student, the decision usually involves weighing the benefit of quick completion of an assignment with a better grade than could be earned alone against the by-no-means-certain threat of being caught and the likelihood of a slap on the wrist, such as failure of a single assignment or at most a single class.

For Kitahara, all of this points to the need for more stringent consequences to academic dishonesty. “A failing grade in one class isn’t going to do. It has to be something that everyone can see, like a permanent notation on the transcript,” he says. The notation would be something that would stay with the student, marking an episode of academic dishonesty for future graduate schools and employers to see, and it would remediate part of the problem of lack of student concern about cheating. “Too many students simply don’t care; all they have to do [now] is take the course over again,” he says.

However, Westfall and Kitahara agree that these measures are “just band aids,” as Kitahara puts it. Until students develop an internal sense of right and wrong that governs their behavior, we will continue to need Remote Proctors and ever more creative methods for making academic dishonesty more difficult.

Excerpted from A Problem of Core Values: Academic Integrity in Distance Learning, Distance Education Report, April 1, 2009.