I have always been interested in cheating and the tug of war between cheating and cheating prevention methods. The new iteration of this process came with the sudden shift to online education. Most students and teachers had to make use of online learning management systems such as Blackboard to organize or take an exam. This made everyone curious about the possibilities for cheating during an online exam conducted through Blackboard. Being both a student and a student instructor I have explored this topic in some detail.
In its essence, Blackboard is not designed to detect cheating as such. However, it works with integrated tools In order to ensure no violations of anti-cheat policies and rules. These include automated systems to detect plagiarism as well as lock down browsers to conduct proctored exams.
Different institutions use a variety of tools to detect cheaters so exploring the policies and tools used by your university is a good first step. While professors can freely inquire about these matters, students might feel uncomfortable asking for fear of being suspected of cheating. If you are a student with such reservations or you are just curious about how online exams work, I have summarized some information on the most frequently asked questions regarding cheating detection in the online environment provided by Blackboard.
How does Blackboard detect cheating?
Schools and universities have embraced the concept of online learning and testing. Most places have already implemented different strategies to deal with cheating. In addition to the standard plagiarism check provided by Blackboard, some universities use a combination of tools for recording video and audio; browser restrictions and IP monitoring; and detection of copying and pasting of information. In this section, we will cover the default functions of Blackboard which can be used to detect cheating – plagiarism check and course activity.
Detection of plagiarism
By default, Blackboard uses SafeAssign as an online plagiarism checking tool. SafeAssign compares students’ submissions with academic papers in order to detect areas of overlap with existing work. Moreover, it can compare submissions with its internal database which includes the submissions by other students including the ones from previous years.
When it comes to term papers or essay assignments, this tool is useful for both students and teachers. It allows students to access a report on their assignment, which can be used to identify and properly cite sources.
This can also be employed during an online exam that involves open questions or timed essays. In such a case Blackboard will check for plagiarism against both the existing database of academic work and the submissions of all other students. This means that copying and pasting information from common sources is easy to detect even without the implementation of proctored exams or specialized tools.
Blackboard course activity
There are two primary ways in which teachers can infer cheating attempts through students’ recorded activity on Blackboard. One is concerned with the activity within the exam module and the other one is focused on activity within other modules of the course.
First, during an exam, everything is recorded – when the exam was started, the time for completion, or the number of attempts (in case multiple attempts are allowed). In most cases, cheating will result in unusually fast and even impossible completion times. Students will take just a couple of minutes to answer a question that requires an essay or tens of multiple-choice questions.
While Blackboard cannot detect anything outside its tab in the browser, professors can tell if you have left the exam page from the lack of interaction on the page. This is an unreliable approach but it can be telling when combined with other factors.
Second, teachers have access to detailed information about students’ activities with the course modules. This includes timestamps which means that teachers can see if a student has accessed or downloaded course materials during an exam.
The functions of Blackboard are incapable of providing conclusive evidence and many professors feel forced to use proctored exams to ensure adherence to anti-cheat policies.
Tools that improve cheating detection
Given the limited options provided by the learning management systems such as Blackboard a lot of institutions have implemented additional proctoring software which allows both live online proctoring and recorded proctoring. The details of collected information will differ based on the options chosen by the institutional regulations and examiners.
Live online proctoring entails audio-video, as well as screen sharing, feeds. This data can include recordings of the webcam and microphone, mouse clicks, and even keyboard activities. This entails that students will have to be informed what kind of data will be collected and whether it will be also saved as a recording.
LockDown Browsers and their functions
- Access to webcam and microphone – during a proctored exam your webcam and microphone are monitored and can be recorded. Some more sophisticated systems implement automated analysis of gaze direction or voice detection that can be used to flag suspicious activity.
- Browser restrictions – only the exam tab is allowed. All other tabs and browsers are closed and no new tabs can be opened. Even if it is technically possible if a new tab is opened, it will likely be flagged as suspicious behavior. Most lockdown browsers remove the option altogether.
- Computer access restrictions – access to anything else besides the lockdown browser is forbidden. Once the student is done with the exam or the time expires and the exam is automatically finished, the student can resume normal activity.
- Screen capture – it is impossible to use print functions or take and share screenshots
- Keyboard shortcuts – most restrict the keyboard shortcuts for copying and pasting but some preclude all keyboard shortcut commands.
- IP address – this is used to link the computer IP address to the student who owns the computer. Therefore if another student attempts to take an exam on the same computer, it will immediately be flagged as suspicious activity.
How do I know if I am proctored on Blackboard?
In a normal environment and during your day-to-day activities Blackboard runs on your browser of choice. This means that Blackboard has only access to your webcam and microphone during lectures. Students need to be informed if the sessions are recorded and can disable their webcams and microphones. Outside of this Blackboard has no access or knowledge about other tabs, cannot detect screen-capture, and has no access to periphery device activities such as keyboard inputs.
When an exam is being proctored the students are officially informed. This comes not only with guidelines, protocols, and rules dictated by the institution but also with additional software and test runs. Given the invasive nature of such software, all precautions such as informed consent are taken especially if the recorded data are being stored.
All procedures require students to be informed about proctoring and this happens on multiple occasions. If as a student during exams you are using specific software required by the institution such as Respondus LockDown Browser, you are likely proctored at least live online. Live feed from your microphone and webcam start when you start your exam.
There is no way of telling as a student whether you are being actively proctored. While the proctors have access to your real-time audio-video feedback there is no way to tell whether they are actively observing your feed. Furthermore, if the data collected during the exam is stored, it can be later reviewed if the assessors are suspicious of cheating.
The current pandemic accelerated the implementation of online learning and expanded the use of learning management platforms such as Blackboard. While this allows taking exams from anywhere in the world it has also necessitated the use of various tools to reduce cheating.
Creating a fair exam environment is important and universities have access to tools that make cheating virtually impossible. I know that some of you opened this post to see if there is a way to cheat without being detected and I hope that knowing the capabilities of Blackboard to detect cheating will make you reconsider.