Is High Tech Cheating a Threat to Online Education?

Is High Tech Cheating a Threat to Online Education?

The problem of cheating in college is nothing new; however, it is becoming a bigger issue now because of the growth of online schools and online course offerings. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article has sparked further conversation about the problem of high tech cheating because there are sources that are readily accessible and available for students. To better understand the issue it is helpful to consider why students choose this option and how schools are addressing it. The future of online education may not be in immediate jeopardy because of the potential for cheating; however, it may threaten the perception of credibility and quality of online programs if students and employers believe that these degrees are easily obtained.

High Tech Cheating

The Chronicle of Higher Education article that brought this issue to light, Online Classes See Cheating Go High-Tech, began with the statement that “easy A's may be even easier to score these days, with the growing popularity of online courses. Tech-savvy students are finding ways to cheat that let them ace online courses with minimal effort, in ways that are difficult to detect.” An example provided in the article was a student who utilized Google Docs to form a collaborative group that allowed other students to share answers. To me, that doesn’t seem to be a very high tech method of cheating and most high tech methods are showing up more frequently in traditional classrooms. According to eCheating: Students find high-tech ways to deceive teachers, this may include a wide range of methods, from “digitally inserting answers into soft drink labels to texting each other test answers and photos of exams.”

For online classes, most forms of cheating are low-tech and involve using information from existing sources without acknowledging the author(s), hiring someone to write an essay, and purchasing papers from paper mills. A Chronicle of Higher Education article in 2010, The Shadow Scholar, shared the story of a professional writer who works for a company that students use when they need to commission the writing of a paper. This unnamed writer indicated that they “work at an online company that generates tens of thousands of dollars a month by creating original essays based on specific instructions provided by cheating students.”

In addition to writing papers for hire, the writer also stated that “I have completed countless online courses. Students provide me with passwords and user names so I can access key documents and online exams. In some instances, I have even contributed to weekly online discussions with other students in the class.” While the validity of this article was called into question, based upon the numerous comments posted, I know from my work as an online instructor that paper mills are available and occasionally utilized by students. While some educators are surprised that students would go this far in an attempt to cheat, the reason may lie in the underlying causes.

Causes of Cheating

Also within the article, The Shadow Scholar, this unnamed writer pointed out that from their experience, the “three demographic groups that seek out my services include: the English-as-second-language student; the hopelessly deficient student; and the lazy rich kid.” I cannot confirm that all of these groups are the students most likely to utilize paper mills and my experience with the causes is more closely aligned with a study about academic dishonesty that was conducted by Dorothy L. R. Jones of Norfolk State University. The report, Academic Dishonesty: Are More Students Cheating?, was the result of studying 48 students who were enrolled in an online business course during the fall of 2010. The top reasons why students admitted to cheating included, “grades (92%), procrastination (83%), and too busy, not enough time to complete assignment or study for test (75%).”

Another perspective about the causes of cheating was shared in the blog, MBAs Cheat. But Why? by Don McCabe, a professor of management and global business at Rutgers University. McCabe has been noted for his “extensive research on college cheating, surveying over 175,000 students at more than 170 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada.” In this blog, he discussed a study that found “on average, 74% of undergraduate business students admit to relying on the Internet, crib notes, or peeking at their neighbors' tests in order to gain some advantage over their equally competitive peers.” With online classes that advantage is absent; however, students are not prevented from contact friends, looking up information online, directly copying from existing sources, or purchasing a paper.

While some educators may believe online students resort to cheating because it results in an “easy A” or they are online and invisible, thus easier to hide under the feeling of anonymity, my experience has found that a lack of time or writing skills is often the cause. For many online schools, students are admitted without taking an entrance exam or skills assessment and they start a class at the undergraduate level often not prepared for the rigors of class work – and the temptation to cheat may be greatest for students who feel challenged. These schools are also aware of the potential for cheating and take proactive measures at an institution and instructional level.

How Schools Address Cheating

For online classes, the most common form of cheating is plagiarism. In my post What Academic Honesty Means for Online Students I defined plagiarism as using the words of an existing author without acknowledging or giving credit for that source of information. A proactive method that schools take is to encourage instructors to monitor students’ papers for originality. In my post, Plagiarism in Online Schools: What Students Need to Know, I discussed one of the largest plagiarism checking services presently utilized by instructors, called Turnitin. As noted by Eric Wignall in How to Stop Cheating in Online Courses, Turnitin contains “over 150 million student papers and the whole of Wikipedia,” and more importantly he indicates that “simply explaining how this system will be used, and providing details about the penalties for plagiarism, will prevent many students from going that route.”

When I provide feedback for assignments, I’ll include a copy of the plagiarism report, even if there is a zero percentage match, to let students know that their work has been reviewed. This aligns with the suggestion made by Dorothy L. R. Jones in Academic Dishonesty: Are More Students Cheating?, that “with proper instructions and role modeling, students can learn the difference between right and wrong.” To fully address the issue of cheating and plagiarism it will take more than the implementation of school policies and procedures. Instructors must be proactive in talking to students about ethical behaviors. Because online schools have an academic honesty code, a plagiarism incident becomes an unethical action as it violates the school’s expectation of honesty.

Within traditional college classes, some educators have suggested that in-class assignments and tests must be given to ensure that students are not cheating. For online classes this would translate into proctored tests; however, for most online schools that would be logistical challenge given the fact that students can live almost anywhere nationally or internationally. I have an opportunity to learn about my students and their writing ability through their discussion board responses, which allows me to compare how they write online to the papers submitted. Some schools have also implemented the use of journal entries and blogs as a means of allowing instructors to develop a “feel” for students’ writing. With the use of plagiarism checkers and a proactive instructional approach, backed by an academic code of conduct, most schools can curb or minimize the problem.

Advice for Students

As a student, is it possible for you to get away with cheating? Of course the answer is yes; however, you are taking gamble. When I talk to students about this issue one of my first questions is this: while they may get a better grade, what does it really mean? If they purchase a paper or copy and paste information from an existing source, have they learned anything? My advice is to work through the challenge of the writing process and if they are short on time or simply get stuck, it is better to get a lower grade and know that they have produced their own work than to risk getting caught and face the consequences of an academic violation. I also remind students that employers are not always looking at GPAs when making hiring decisions but rather the skills they possess. In other words, it is better to have a 3.5 GPA and a solid skill set than a record of plagiarism and academic sanctions.
High tech cheating is a threat to the credibility of online education and the value of the degree that students work hard to earn. To minimize the issue schools and educators need to maintain proactive measures and strict academic policies, while engaging students in discussions about ethics and the purpose of completing their own work. This problem will never be eliminated, but it can be controlled if students know that the potential long-term risk outweighs the short-term gain.

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

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