By Dr. Zachary Patterson, Instructor, Department of Neuroscience

This is the first of a four-part series by Neuroscience instructors on their experiences with the sudden and rapid transition to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The transition to online learning has introduced some new challenges for protecting intellectual property (IP). Moving lectures, discussions and assessments online increases the opportunities for IP rights to be violated. Screen recordings, screenshots, pictures and information sharing during online assessments are problematic for instructors and are a likelihood in the online format. Protecting instructors’ IP is a real concern, given the amount of time and effort required to create assessments that reflect the learning objectives of your course. In an online classroom, instructors are to assume assessments are open book, adding another layer of difficulty assessing whether or not a student has achieved a learning objective for a lecture, module or course.

How can I protect my IP? There is no magic bullet that addresses this issue, at least not that I have thought of or encountered. However, there are a few levers that can be used to mitigate some of the risk. Many instructors are turning to cuLearn, or other online platforms, to administer their quizzes, tests, exams, and many of these platforms are equipped with tools that can help protect your IP.


 I have gone back and forth many times over trying to decide the optimal time for students to complete assessments. I have asked TAs to walk through quizzes and recruited undergraduate students to take mock exams to observe the time it takes to complete a given assessment. What I have learnt is that by restricting the amount of time permitted to complete an assessment, students are required to focus their energies on answering the questions at hand. As a consequence, they have much less opportunity to take and share questions, Google answers, comb through lecture slides, etc.

A really important piece to this approach, however, is communication. Students don’t inherently like time pressures, and I don’t blame them for that. My approach has been to engage my students in a discussion up front about IP and academic integrity. I explain the process used to land on a particular time limit (e.g. 30 minutes to complete 20 questions) and that the number isn’t arbitrary, but rather was reached through experimentation, trial and error. I explain that I am using time to minimize opportunities for students to Google answers and/or take pictures of the questions and share them with friends and colleagues. I empathize with them over time restrictions, but at the same time I discuss the challenges I face in developing these assessments, and the consequences to us all if/when these questions are shared amongst students. Finally, I reassure them that if adequately prepared and focused, they will complete the assessment on time.

Question banks

Building question banks can help protect academic integrity and IP at the same time. When designing and administering assessments on cuLearn, large question banks allow instructors to pull a random subset of questions for each student. This helps ensure students are not writing the exact same quiz/test and therefore cannot simply share answers. It also helps dilute some of the questions students might have previously seen either posted online or being sold as study guides, mock exams, etc. The larger the question bank, the less likely a student has come across the question somewhere else. As long as the question banks are updated and revised as necessary, instructors can continue going back to the well.

However, using this approach also comes with challenges and considerations. Developing questions that are ‘equivalent’ in terms of the level of difficulty, the skills or abilities being tested, and the level and domain of Bloom’s Taxonomy being targeted can be difficult. With some well thought out questions, this can be an effective tool to avoid IP violations.

Review options

Another tool you can use is to limit the review options online after the assessment has been complete. Giving students an opportunity to review their work on cuLearn provides them with ample opportunity to grab the questions (and answers) to your assessments. To minimize some of this risk, instructors have the option of turning off all review settings when designing their assessments in cuLearn. This means following the completion of an online assessment, students will only have access to their grade, without having access to the correct responses or to the questions they answered correctly vs. incorrectly.

It should be noted, however, that offering students the opportunity to review their work is essential, as it allows them to learn from their mistakes and improve their skills and abilities moving forward. As such, reviewing assessments should be strongly encouraged, albeit in a more controlled setting that is safer for your IP, such as an office hour or a review session hosted by TAs.

Quiz Design

 Finally, the design and presentation of assessments can also help minimize IP violations. For example, deciding how many questions are presented at once, what order the questions are presented in, whether or not a student can go back and forth between questions, etc. By presenting questions sequentially, one at a time, and in random order it provides less opportunity to screenshot or record the questions. It certainly does not eliminate all risk, but when combined with an appropriate time restriction, students who spend time taking pictures of each question might find themselves strapped for time towards the end of the assessment – and this should be clearly communicated to students.

None of these measures are perfect. They might work for some forms of assessments but not for others. The point is, by thinking these fine details through, and strategically developing your assessments, you can minimize the risk of your IP being violated. The most important piece of advice I can give is to be open and transparent with your students about your strategy. The tools discussed above do impose a layer of difficulty that most students won’t be thrilled about. However, if you can get out in front of this issue and explain to students why IP matters, how IP violations compromise academic integrity and the importance of academic integrity for their degrees to have meaning – most students will understand.

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