Online Courses And The Challenge Of Cheating

Dec 4, 2012
  |  by Jennifer Cook

Academic dishonesty has always been a problem in the world of higher learning, but it’s become a lot easier in the age of online education. This is a significant problem for digital learning advocates, because it undercuts the promise of scalable, affordable higher education that we have been touting for years.

The good news, I think, is that real instructors, connected to real students through online courses, can significantly reduce academic dishonesty in their classes online. But they may have to adapt to new tools and methods that create disincentives for students to cheat.

Forms of Cheating in Online Courses

The ways that students are finding to get around doing actual study and online coursework aren’t that varied. Plagiarism is still a major form of academic cheating, and that’s not unique to online colleges. Students also use outside sources during tests and quizzes, often connecting with classmates through video-chat, texting or other communication tools so they can work as a group.

Cheating is especially prevalent in the wave of non-credit, free MOOCs (massive open online courses), which rely on peer-grading. The graders just can’t keep up with the volume of assignments they’re asked to grade, and many of them are not trained on how to identify and handle cheating and plagiarism.

How Instructors Can Prevent Online Cheating

The pattern that keeps emerging is that no matter who is doing the grading, that person has to be trained in methods to detect cheating and plagiarism in online courses and hold students accountable. Also, students are often unclear on exactly what constitutes cheating. And what may not seem okay in a classroom environment may seem okay when they’re simply on their laptop in the library with friends. Instructors need to take steps that make it clear what expectations for the course are, taking into account the realities of how students are consuming information online for their class:

  • Frequent Reminders: Even minimal deterrents to cheating reduce the instances of academic dishonesty, as do reminders of consequences for cheaters who are caught (expulsion, loss of grade, automatic class failure, etc.).
  • Give Examples: Clarify exactly what is and is not cheating for various learning activities in an online course and make sure to go over them periodically in the syllabus and before assignments, quizzes and tests.
  • In-Person Testing: Require exams be taken in class or in a proctored environment where students don’t have access to the Web or to their classmates.
  • Plagiarism Detection Software: Programs meant to detect plagiarized assignments, essays, etc. aren’t perfect, but many plagiarizers aren’t putting in that much effort into not getting caught either. Make it know that you use such software.
  • Change Assessments: Rethink the way you measure knowledge and competence. Asking students to demonstrate their knowledge in real time, do projects that are simply hard or impossible to plagiarize, or require assignments that would be just as hard to plagiarize as to do the assignment.

Why Cheating Matters

At the root of this is what a grade in any class—whether from a non-credited open course or an accredited online college like Strayer University—actually means. What it should mean, what an educational assessment by an expert instructor is supposed to mean, is that you actually proved that you learned something, that you have earned the knowledge the course is meant to convey through study and thought.

No matter how education evolves in the era of online learning technology, that assessment has to be meaningful in order for an online degree or a certificate to be valuable in the marketplace. This probably isn’t the end of the arms race between tech-savvy students bent on cheating and the instructors who are tasked with protecting the integrity of the grades and degrees that they hand out. But much of this problem can simply be addressed as teachers become more comfortable with online learning technology and find better ways to assess learning.


Author bio: Jennifer Cook writes on student life, going back to school and online learning technology for When she isn't writing, you can track her down in the library, trying to check out more books than her card allows.



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