Curbing Cheating Online: The Problem of Ringers

This post is part of a series designing online courses. We’ve been at it for awhile now, so if you are new to online course design, you may want to begin at the beginning. This post, the previous few, and the next two will focus on designing to ensure the validity of online assessments (that is, preventing cheating).

The hardest cheating to pull off but also the hardest to prevent is the use of ringers in a class. Companies that offer to hire someone else to take a course for you, guaranteeing you a good grade; whole degrees can be completed for tens of thousands of dollars.

And, of course, students don’t need to use a third party; they can also hire their classmates to do their work.

This is true for a F2F class, too, so we should not enact policies more invasive in online classes than we use in F2F ones.

Plus, the most invasive policies don’t work.

For example, unless you are matching IDs to faces (which means you should be trained to match IDs to faces because it turns out that we are bad at it, and, to be frank, the possibility of implicit bias is probably strong here), remote proctoring doesn’t guarantee that the student you think is taking the exam is in fact the person taking the exam. Likewise, requiring video conferences or recorded presentations doesn’t guarantee that the person you are looking at is the enrollee, even if you match their face against their image in your visual roster. (Plus, those images are often outdated, especially due to weight gain or loss. And trans students may not be accurately depicted in them if they are unable to get their IDs reissured during or after transitioning, if they choose to do so in college. And you DO NOT ask a student if they’ve gained a lot of weight or started taking hormones right before they take an exam or deliver a presentation.)

Biometric measures like signatures that require the same keystroke pattern are easily defeated simply by having the ringer create the signature in the first place.

So, what can you do to curb the use of ringers? A few ideas:

  • Assign grades for stages of a product–like submitting the topic, a bibliography, a first draft, and a final draft. If the content or quality of the work improves dramatically, call the student on the phone on record with the registrar’s office (since it’s unlikely the student would have registered a ringer’s phone number) to ask questions about the content of the work. If they don’t know the key points in their own argument or the meanings of the words they claimed to have written, they may have hired someone to complete the work they started.
  • Change assignments often. This makes it more difficult for a ringer to repeatedly take the course.
  • Require in-person proctoring (which you must tell students about before enrollment; be sure this doesn’t violate your university’s policies.). This means that students will report to a tutoring center or other approved site in order to complete an assignment. Other colleges, libraries, and tutoring centers (such as Sylvan) may offer proctoring services to students for a fee. Because students may be required to pay for these, you should keep them to a minimum and also include this as a required course material. Additionally, you should plan on what you will do if 1) the results from a proctored assignment are considerably worse than other assessments (Does this mean that the student has been using a ringer all along?) and 2) if a student is unable to locate a proctoring center, which can happen if they live in a rural area or travel a lot for work (or live at sea, which has been the case for some of my students before).

The Twins, Kate and Grace Hoare

The Twins, Kate and Grace Hoare by John Everett Millais (1829–1896) show two women dressed in dresses of similar style and color. One wears a hat and another holds hers in her hand. A hound sits in the lower left corner.

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One thought on “Curbing Cheating Online: The Problem of Ringers

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  1. This post touches on an issue I brought up on another page, one where Rebecca suggested that we not watch students take a test. Hopefully, she’s realized that that was a bad idea, because ringers don’t have to be any good at disguising their appearance then.

    Another suggestion was to change assignments from semester to semester. This is where the sciences have an advantage over the humanities — I teach math, for those who don’t know — in that it is very easy to write up a program to generate homework problems, and not quite so easy to make sure the problems have “nice” numbers in them. (However, this is possible, and I’ve been doing it over the course of the past ten years in various classes.)

    One issue that Rebecca didn’t mention was that of name changes (and names in general). I’ve even had a couple of students get married in the middle of a semester, who have started using their married names right away (but not telling me right away). There are also other circumstances where names change — I’ve even had one this semester.

    I’ve also had students (mostly from the Middle East) who can spell their name in several ways with the Roman alphabet. This is also a tough one to chase down in general. Furthermore, most software won’t group together Alhazred, AlHazred, and Al Hazred when you sort names. (I was told once that there is no functional difference between these spellings. When I asked a class of about 40 students whether there was a difference, the response was a universal No, in unison.) And just when you thought you’d taken care of all the possibilities, along come patronyms.

    I’ve also had students with two family names, which weren’t hyphenated. In the case of John James Smith, “James” is usually the middle name, but the last name could be “James Smith” instead. (This actually happened to me once at a math conference. My full name is Christopher Carl Heckman, and I couldn’t find my information in the H’s. It turns out it was under C for Carl.)

    These issues can lead to what’s called a “false negative” in statistics: where you think you’ve found someone who’s cheating, but who isn’t. (A “false positive” is where someone is trying to cheat, but you don’t catch them.)

    I’m not sure whether this is a good place to discuss ID-checking strategies, but one that I’ve used is the central facial area (between the cheekbones and the forehead). The only change there is usually someone who gets glasses and/or changes to contacts, so weight gain and hormonal changes aren’t relevant (and thus don’t need to be asked).


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