Fears have been raised that the move to digital assessment during the pandemic has fuelled cheating and plagiarism among university students.

Teaching experts at the University of Edinburgh have expressed concerns about the issue of ‘academic misconduct’ following the move from traditional in-person exams to open book online exams, which are usually set over a 2-3 hour period or 24-hour period.

Academic misconduct includes plagiarism, collusion, contract cheating, and fabrication of data as well as the possession of unauthorised materials during an examination.

Dr Neil Lent, a lecturer in learning and teaching at the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh, has been central to the rapid upheaval of the university’s assessment design during the public health crisis.

His role focuses on improving student assessment and designing better courses and programmes.

Speaking to Dr Joe Arton, an academic developer in the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh – and producer of the Teaching Matters podcast – Lent explains the risks posed by the move to digital assessment.

He says “falsification of data” in scientific projects is a particular concern, while “programming tasks in computing subjects are seen as potentially high risk.”

He asks: “If we don’t do proper exams in a room, then there’s the potential for cheating. If it’s online – is it really that person doing the exam at that time?”

Cheating is not the only issue that has been raised following the change in assessment design. The move to digital appraisal has also led to an increase in workload and pressure in some instances.

Dr Arton says: “Academic misconduct in assessments is a wicked problem. And the scope of this wicked problem is perceived to have escalated during the pandemic. Responding to academic misconduct at the course programme, institutional, or even sector level, requires complex and often unsatisfying interventions. And for these interventions to work, a lot of people have to change their behaviour and mindset.

“But the sad fact is that a great deal of the technical solutions designed to mitigate academic misconduct haven’t done much to close the perception gap. One of the main drivers in academic misconduct is the inability of staff and students to accurately identify each other’s expectations of the learning and teaching environment.”

Celeste McLaughlin, head of academic development for digital education at the Institute for Academic Development, believes that the introduction of digital assessment practices has triggered “a growing awareness of what’s possible” among staff.

McLaughlin says: “What we’ve seen is people starting to see those possibilities… And they’re having conversations with the students. I think this is really important, having those conversations with the students, finding out what works for the students in their particular context, bearing in mind that a lot of students are studying in very different environments – whether that is in halls of residence, or at home or in a different country in a different timezone.

“And these are all the complexities that colleagues have had to adapt to over this academic year very quickly. And also get their heads round a number of different technologies, and also get their heads round these quickly evolving changes to the teaching and learning practices. And actually what we’re finding now is people are having, I think, quite useful changes to their mind sets about the possibilities, what they can do going forward.

“So rather than thinking of it as something negative, I like to flip that and think about it as being something more positive and where you open up opportunities to have a dialogue with students about expectations, and about what good academic practice looks like.”

But, as Dr Arton points out in the ‘How Covid-19 Impacted Assessment’ podcast, the “move to more authentic and better assessment practices” comes with a “price tag” – an increase in appraisal opportunities for students, often means an increase in marking workload for academic staff.

And Dr Lent argues that “one of the big things that holds us back in terms of developing better, better assessment [and] ways of teaching is this fear of academic misconduct”, but explains that the issue could perhaps be mitigated if students better understood what was expected of them.

A spokesman for the University of Edinburgh said: “The University takes academic misconduct very seriously and is committed to ensuring that such incidents are detected and dealt with appropriately under the University’s academic misconduct procedure. 

“Details on our procedures and further information on what constitutes academic misconduct is published on the University website at http://www.ed.ac.uk/academic-services/students/conduct/academic-misconduct.”

For more information, listen to the full podcast here.