University abandons Cadmus anti-cheating software

The software would have registered students' locations when writing essays on the app.

Cadmus software is named for the Greek hero, who fought monsters ('cheaters'). Cadmus software is named for the Greek hero, who fought monsters ('cheaters'). Image: Nick Bonyhady.

The University of Sydney has decided against introducing Cadmusanti-cheating software that aims to detect ghost-writing.

Created by former University of Melbourne students Herk Kailis and Robbie Russo, Cadmus aims to use keystroke analytics (tracking typing patterns) and multifactor authentication (multiple log-in questions) to prevent students submitting essays purchased from ‘essay mills.’

On 29 May the University Education Committee decided not to adopt Cadmus, after trialling the software in the psychology unit PSYC3020 in Semester 2 2016, and the business unit BUSS6000 in Summer School 2017.

“I don’t want to say anything negative against Cadmus, per se,” Peter McCallum, Director of Education Strategy, told Honi cautiously. “It might be a great tool for other environments, it just didn’t fit our particular one.”

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) Pip Pattison was more forthright: “staff and students hated it”.

The decision to ditch Cadmus is a victory for the Students’ Representative Council, which has been campaigning against use of the software on pragmatic and ethical grounds.

Isabella Brook, SRC President, and one of three student representatives on the University Education Committee, describes Cadmus as “impractical” and “invasive.” Although, she adds, “I don’t know a better word than ‘creepy.’”

“The SRC has been quite avidly against Cadmus from when it was first rolled out,” Brook says, explaining her belief that the software allows universities to exert excessive influence over student behaviour, which interferes with individualised work habits and ultimately amounts to a breach of privacy.

Brook also said that Cadmus does not account for individual students’ idiosyncrasies. For example, you can only write an essay in Cadmus if you are connected to the Internet because the program operates in a browser, like Google Docs. You cannot simply write the essay offline and paste it into Cadmus because universities can set copy-and-paste thresholds, limiting the amount of text that can be pasted.

According to Brook, the software presents a privacy problem beyond the initial concern of sharing location data with the University. Cadmus can be seen as one of several surveillance technologies that Australian universities are experimenting with that lend themselves to ‘function creep’ – the phenomenon whereby technology comes to be used for a purpose other than its intended purpose, expanding the powers of the operator.

Adam Bridgeman, the University’s Director of Educational Innovation explains that Cadmus tracks users’ locations by comparing the location data presented by a Cadmus app on their smartphone to location data from the Cadmus software on their computer. McCallum says that “this is not tracking, but simply noting the location of a phone at one time”.

The location data is kept in “an encrypted form in the Cadmus system but their engineers cannot access it”. Location data is shared only with unit of study coordinators in the event that there is a discrepancy between phone and computer data, suggesting potential cheating.

However, Bridgeman clarifies that “No [location] discrepancies were identified in either trial and the data has been destroyed”. As McCallum puts it, in both trial subjects, “nothing influenced the academic’s judgement of the student’s work other than the work itself”. So, if you recently failed PSYC3020 or BUSS6000 it was not Cadmus’ fault.

“Even if you aren’t doing anything wrong you should be able to feel like you are not being watched, being monitored,” Brook says.

Brook thinks the University’s current academic honesty procedures are fine as they are, and commends the University for “focusing on educating students on what they’re doing rather than punishing students.”

Most of the University’s existing academic honesty procedures, such as those mandatory academic integrity modules that you blindly click through in the same way you would iTunes’ terms and conditions, are educational ‘risk mitigation strategies’.

For example, rule 5(1) of the Academic Honesty Procedures 2016, the only clause in the University’s academic honesty policies to explicitly mention “ghost-writing or contract cheating,” focuses on preventative policy prescriptions, like encouraging unit of study coordinators to incorporate oral presentations and in-person exams into their courses.

Cadmus attempts to embrace the ethos of preventative education, guiding wayward students back to academic honesty resources when they overstep set thresholds. Yet by most accounts, Cadmus is the kind of ‘innovation’ that tries to help but makes things worse.

McCallum has confirmed that, at present, the University does not plan to introduce an updated version of Cadmus but according to Pattison, it may reconsider the use of similar software in the future.