The Dilution of Higher Education

This has been a week from Stupidville.

Let’s see if I can describe the situation. I’ll need to describe events and motivations leading up to the recent controversy, and the immediate results and subsequent modifications I have had to make in order to make one of the institutions I am employed by happy. As always, I will try to place my interaction into a larger educational context. To hint at my summary, administrators at institutions of so-called higher learning are themselves responsible for the dilution and failure of the U.S. educational system.

I am very active in online education. Since 2004, I’ve taught approximately 32 sections of a world geography course for community colleges and a university. Examinations are always a sensitive component of any online course, i.e. how does one maintain integrity in an online exam when the student is miles away and unsupervised?

Faculty have adopted several positions to address maintaining assessment integrity. Exams are offered for a limited time, usually 24-48 hours. Exams are limited in duration, typically 90 minutes to two hours. A rule-of-thumb is used to determine test length. A student is provided 1-1/2 to 3 minutes per question; multiply by the number of questions and you arrive at the time duration for any exam. Additionally, a student gets one attempt. A single attempt is offered to avoid a student progressing through an exam, reading and answering questions, then closing their browser to shutdown the exam. The student then emails the instructor saying such as, “My browser just went away while I was taking the exam. Will you please reset my exam.”

Students have devised many ways around online assessments. Students will work in groups. Students will gather to watch one student take an exam, then the remaining students will take their exam. The group will take turns taking exams so none will suffer but one poor attempt.

“My browser just went away while I was taking the exam. Will you please reset my exam.”

Students will take screenshots or cut and paste exam text into a text document; then, the exam will be closed, the answers investigated, the instructor emailed, and the exam reset.

Students will never read or perhaps even buy the textbook. Students will immediately engage an exam or writing assignment in one browser window while using another browser window to Google answers. Often, they will use Firefox and Chrome, or some combination of two browsers in order to avoid a potential interruption by using Tabbed Browsing.

Students will rally themselves into groups to take exams. In the event an instructor has implemented a limited reset policy students will work as a team to circumvent the reset policy. For instance, a professor may have a “one reset policy,” i.e. the student receives one free reset for any exam for the semester. The professor may have, say, four exams for the course. The first student takes the exam until the end while making notes for the remaining team members. At the end, the student will kill the attempt and request his/her reset. Student Two will use the notes from Student One and take the assessment. Student Two will then take the second assessment. At the end Student Two will kill the attempt and request his/her free reset. Student Two will then distribute notes to the remaining team members.

Students will take an exam all the through to the second-to-last question and note the feedback answers. The browser is then closed, which ends the exam. The instructor is then contacted and a request for a reset is made.

“Students will rally themselves into groups to take exams.”

If these scenarios I outline seem far-fetched, all have already been documented “in the wild,” meaning students are working as teams at colleges and universities across the country to circumvent online testing.

The students who suffer are the honest ones who actually perform the required assignments. Some students in remote area, such as rural counties, also lack the physical social network to be a part of one of these testing teams.

Historically, I always allowed my students multiple attempts at quizzes and exams as I figured there was no way to really police the exam environment. Also, and based on previous experience, the network technology did not really exist to provide a stable connection over 90 minutes for a student to take an exam without some glitch shutting down the exam.

During the spring and summer of 2012, after considerable internal debate, I opted to implement a “no reset policy” for my exams. Many factors were considered in my decision. I personally took several Blackboard assessments, both my own testing and online assessments provided by the community colleges. I experienced flawless performance throughout. People I am familiar with taking classes also have experience success in taking online exams which last longer than 1 hour; some lasting longer than 2 hours. I have also heard students inform their peers how they were able to re-take an exam by closing their browser and claiming a “glitch kicked me off.” Based on the factors I described I decided to implement my own “no reset policy.”

The “No reset policy” is not unique to me. “One attempt” or sometimes called “One-shot attempts” are extremely common among university faculty. Students around me have complained about faculty who offer only two online exams from which the lion’s share of the grade is determined and have had some “glitch” interrupt the exam. Responses by faculty to queries about re-taking or re-opening the exam vary from silence to a simple “no.” But, a simple google of “online education exam reset policy” should provide enough examples.

Technically, no way exists to filter a student with a legitimate technical issue from a student who is gaming an online course. The technical issues manifest in precisely the same way whether the student is cheating or honestly has a real technical issue. Only an environmental interruption can be corroborated, a regional power outage, a regional disconnection of Internet access such as a fiber cut, a closure of a computer laboratory, or some other disruption at the institution. Those interruptions can be verified. Similarly, an ISP can offer a report in the event of an interruption of service.

A student sitting at home, with limited exception, has no ability to offer corroboration. A letter from a parent who has a vested interest in having their child succeed is not an unbiased instrument.

Many institutions of higher learning leave the policy of exam resets to the discretion of the faculty. Faculty are given ultimate sway in deciding the fate of a student who has become shutout of an exam. Faculty would like to believe students are honest actors in the taking of exams, but the evidence is against the student. All one must do is contemplate your own education to find validity in my statement.

Can you say you never witnessed nor experienced cheating in a college classroom? I know for a fact fraternities and sororities maintain files for all faculty and all courses. I know, because my fraternity did; we maintain several file cabinets worth of returned exams. Fraternity members would hire a brother to write a research paper, or hire a sorority sister to write a paper. Cheating was endemic within the entire Greek system. And, I also know the pattern of behavior persists.

My comments are not meant to simply indict the Greek system; social fraternities are simply a good example. In the Era of Online Social Networks, students across the board are organizing themselves via Facebook, and using Google Docs, SkyDrive, and Dropbox to organize and share coursework.

Thus, faculty are faced with few good options for policing the integrity of their online exams. The “no reset” policy may sound draconian yet few options exist.

The implications for online learning are staggering when considered against protecting the integrity of the tools which are designed to measure a student’s competency. When those tools are compromised, no entity benefits.

Last week was spent in a week-long debate regarding my “no reset” policy for my online exams. Controversy was ignited by a lone student who protested not being able to re-take his exam after being kicked off Blackboard. I said,

No, I’m sorry; I have no way to know if you had a legitimate technology issue, if you were googling-for-answers, of simply decided if the exam was too difficult and closed your browser. Furthermore, you read my syllabus and recognized my policy. You took my syllabus quiz, therefore implicitly accepting my conditions. I also provided specific directions, suggestions, and cautions in my course video (posted on YouTube) and also in my Blackboard tutorial (also posted on YouTube).

The student appealed to both the dean and the Vice-President of Online Learning. While the dean did not feel like my policy was “fair” she admitted my syllabus made a clear statement.

The Vice-President of Online Learning offered a different viewpoint. I paraphrase:

Since there is no way to tell whether or not the student suffered a legitimate technological glitch, the student should be granted another attempt. Any student which appeals your “no reset” policy is going to win the appeal.

There are at least three fundamental concerns with the position of the VP-OL. The most obvious concern is any student who complains about the closure of an exam, for nearly any reason, will potentially be allowed to re-take the exam. A subset concern to the negation of the “no reset” policy means the student can have as many resets as the student requires to complete the exam.

A second concern suggests the syllabus is not worth the paper upon which it is printed, not if an administrator can negate conditions, at will. Also, their ability to do negate syllabi conditions undermines every argument “a syllabus is a contract.” No, a syllabus cannot be a contract if an actor not party to the conditions of the syllabus can negate any or all aspects of the syllabus.

A third concern is the fundamental undermining of academic integrity which occurs when faculty are no longer able to control the integrity of the assessments they are charged to create and score, in many cases for “quality assurance” for accrediting agencies. Faculty are charged with assessing students, measuring student competency, for reports which are generated to satisfy agencies which accredit colleges and universities. Student are able to achieve higher scores; higher scores become integrated into measurements of student competency; measurements are passed along to state, federal, and accrediting agencies. Funding, recognition, and awards are then based on the accumulated data.

Flawed data.

Now, administrators become complicit in the dilution of education.

Faculty are then faced with controversy on two fronts. On one front, administrators negate policies written into syllabi which are deemed unfair and side with student upon appeal. On the other front, students can spend an hour or so circumventing an exam, working alone or with a team, to cheat.

Policies and attitudes described above then run the distinct possibility of achieving normalcy within our U.S. society. Students, the beneficiaries of benign administrators today, then see no harm in falsifying data later when hired into positions of responsibility. Students who were beneficiaries of appeals, or of team-cheating, realize the power of group-think to find loopholes around real business, finance, or political rules and regulations.

Ethics are undermined, and society suffers real problems. We are seeing evidence of unethical behavior which began well before employment. I would wager Wall Street financial cheats did not arrive at Wall Street with rigid ethical backbones. No, they cheated or found loopholes, or leverage social network connections get achieve their positions. Examples do not need to extend to Wall Street. School districts have been found cheating on No Child Left Behind test scores. Colleges and universities have cheated on scores to fraudulently obtain state and federal funding.

I offer my comments simply as an contemporary anecdote of one atomic bit in the fracturing of the U.S. education infrastructure. As our culture adopts and embraces online learning we must be very careful our attempts to share educational opportunities do not become so dilute as to make online learning of questionable value, at best, and worthless, at worst.


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