Universities see steep rise in cheating, misconduct with move to online assessments

Universities have been experiencing a sharp increase in academic misconduct attributed directly to the move to online assessments since last year. Stellenbosch University’s institutional committee for business continuity chair, Stan du Plessis, said during last year’s academic year student discipline experienced an unusual increase in academic misconduct matters involving collusion (where one or more students assist each other during online assessments), as a result, disciplinary proceedings involving collusion were instituted against 183 students.

Du Plessis said in comparison with that number, in the 2019 academic year, only two students were charged with collusion.

“This sharp increase can be attributed directly to the move to online assessments. The consequences of such misconduct are grave. The majority of the students who were found guilty of collusion forfeited the marks for the modules involved,” he said.

He said the forfeiture of marks resulted in the loss of time, additional cost, as well as the addition of an extra academic year to their studies. He said the university viewed all forms of academic misconduct in a very serious light as it compromised the integrity of the qualifications issued, including academic dishonesty during online assessments.

SA Parastatal and Tertiary Institutions Union (Saptu) general secretary, advocate Ben van der Walt, said it was easier for students to assist each other online when tasked, than physically, when they were under supervision in a lecture or exam room.

University of the Western Cape (UWC) spokesperson Gasant Abarder said assessments have been set to account for collaboration and possible discussion among students. Abarder said most assessments, while online, have taken the form of take home assessments which were of a nature that collaboration among students would not advantage a student in any specific way.

“Where assessments are required to be more formal in terms of timing and self-work, these were in-person assessments prior to level 4 and in some cases online but with the use of proctoring software. Where plagiarism is picked up there are rules to govern the process depending on the severity of the case. In most cases the department can impose a sanction,” he said.

Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) spokesperson Lauren Kansley said the credibility of online assessments was a major concern for CPUT’s Teaching and Learning portfolio.

“We have not seen a major spike in misconduct with regards to online assessments and that is because the university has made great effort to tailor each individual assessment to the particular course requirements,” said Kansley.

SA Students’ Congress (Sasco) spokesperson Luvuyo Barnes said there was not a metric to gauge what academic misconduct was, especially in the new format of online learning. Universities post the Covid-19 pandemic have either victimised students by pushing them out of campuses or by leaving them under-resourced. Barnes said there was a problem with institutions pinning their inability to progress through this phase to students.

“However the blame can’t only be pinned on students. Institutions of higher learning have in the main failed students,” said Barnes.

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