The Integrity Arms Race is Expensive and Unsustainable

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This article was originally posted by Times Higher Ed.

For every wall we build or moat we dig to protect the integrity of tests and test-takers, someone is out there right now scheming a way to get over or around it. 

This reality has been likened to an arms race or a “spy versus spy” situation. Both are pretty accurate comparisons – not least regarding the ever-escalating costs involved.

I see how expensive integrity defence is getting for universities because my company provides remote proctoring services for online assessments. We’re one of the walls that educational institutions increasingly need. But our own costs are increasing.

Recently, we made the decision to stop offering the type of proctoring that relied on computers alone to identify test behaviour that may have violated the rules. We dropped this AI-only service because identifying it was not sufficiently reliable. Cheating absolutely must have human oversight; we can’t have a technology-only solution to a very human issue.

Other companies in the market know this too, but there is a reason why they are not following suit. The reason is that AI-only oversight is significantly less expensive than the human variety. Training human proctors to review every minute of every exam unavoidably costs more than training computers does.

One company that monitors remote exams recently told a higher education publication that a typical university using that company’s AI-only monitoring tool “spends less than 25 cents per proctoring session. Live, human proctoring often costs $25 per exam. The price points and services are entirely different.”

This quote isn’t 100 percent accurate regarding cost, but the broader point is spot on. As the cheaters learn how to cut a hole in your cheap, wooden defenses, you have to reinforce them with stronger material – which equates to greater expense. In higher education, those increased costs are borne by universities and are occasionally passed along to students.

Institutions have had to make heavier investments in staff to adjudicate the continual increases in academic misconduct exacerbated by online and remote learning. But the costs don’t stop there. When students hire lawyers to challenge academic misconduct cases, universities’ own legal fees quickly get expensive. And when there are several such cases proceeding at once, those costs are too great to ignore.

Simply ignoring cheating – or rationalizing it away as the rogue efforts of a few misguided or ill-intended students – is not cheap either. It’s just the currency that is different. Here, the cost is the damaged reputations of institutions and the degraded value of the degrees they confer. Furthermore, there are even more serious, long-term reputational costs for institutions – and, indeed, the entire sector – when it is widely known that cheating goes unchecked.

Clearly, we need robust investments in student support, as well as human proctoring, to combat cheating. But it is unlikely that we will be able to spend our way out of this problem, especially when our adversaries – the essay mills and live cheating sites – continue to make massive profits and have no ethical governor reining in their conduct. Instead, real and lasting solutions are only possible if universities adopt some more creative – and less expensive – efforts as well.

These solutions include reconfiguring assessments and pedagogy to make cheating more difficult. But, most of all, we need to build awareness among students of good learning practice. We need lots and lots of educational campaigns and training about integrity and the dangers – both in terms of being caught and of losing out on the personal and professional benefits of higher learning – of taking easy shortcuts.

Cynics will say that such efforts will be in vain, but I disagree. After all, education is what educators do. If we can agree that these campaigns are urgent and the institutional changes even more so, we can disarm this expensive and spiraling integrity arms race.

Ashley Norris is chief academic officer and chief compliance officer at Meazure Learning, the parent company of ProctorU. She was previously a faculty member and administrator at institutions including the University of Alabama, Samford University and the University of Phoenix.