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Cheating in Online Education: Myth vs. Reality
Although online learning is becoming more and more prevalent, there still persist myths about what it means to be an online student. One frequently discussed topic in the world of online education is cheating. According to one 2009 study, 73.8% of students surveyed felt that it was easier to cheat in an online class. This skewed perspective — that cheating is so easy — can lead to misconceptions about how prevalent cheating really is in the online setting.
Because online courses often do not involve face-to-face instruction, the uninitiated can easily fall prey to the idea that cheating is rampant. After all, how could a professor that is miles or even states away prevent students from just googling the answers to their tests? And if no one is checking, isn’t everyone doing it?
Myths about cheating in online education persist because of a lack of information. The idea that cheating is unchecked in virtual classrooms is simply untrue. In fact, while there have been conflicting results from multiple studies done on the issue of cheating in online courses, there is nothing to suggest that cheating is much more common in every online situation.
Following are five commonly held misconceptions about cheating in online education. The truth of the matter might surprise you.
Myth: Online universities don’t really care about cheating
Reality: There is some belief that online universities do not have the same rigorous academic standards that traditional colleges and universities do. However, the truth is that most so-called online universities are also traditional universities and that in fact these universities, on the whole, are vigilant about preventing cheating. Dr. Susan Aldridge, President of Drexel University Online, indicates that at her school, “We create solid barriers to cheating, while also making every effort to identify and sanction it as it occurs or directly after the fact.”
It is also important to consider the investment factor. Online learning programs invest in technology that will improve student outcomes and support success — including Learning Management Systems (LMS’s). While an online course could technically be proctored with little more than email and a message board, by using an LMS, a college or university is sending a strong signal that they care about the integrity of the course. In addition to plagiarism detection (see below), these systems can integrate with other cheating detection technologies that offer identity verification and other features designed to thwart cheating.
Further, colleges like the University of Central Florida invest heavily in training their online faculty. The UCF course IDL6543 is designed to ensure that faculty is comfortable teaching in an online environment. No faculty training in online learning would be complete without covering the possibility of cheating and methods for detection of possible academic dishonesty in an online environment.
These varied investments, in technology as well as training, demonstrate that online programs do indeed care about cheating and do everything in their power to detect and prevent it.
Myth: It’s impossible for online instructors to identify cheating
Reality: When you think about cheating, it is easy to go back to high school when an instructor at the front of the room sat watching vigilantly as each student completed a test or quiz, admonishing any student who did not keep his eyes on his own paper. Because online education does not have that physical presence, it can be easy to think that when cheating does occur, the perpetrators will not get caught.
However, just as universities who offer online courses certainly do care about academic honesty, so do they put into place mechanisms that can detect different types of cheating in the online setting. For example, according to Dr. Aldridge, Drexel University uses a number of technological advancements to minimize cheating occurrences, including:
- a variety of virtual test-taking strategies that have proven effective when it comes to preventing students from cheating on exams
- authentication technologies to electronically affirm an online student’s identity
- webcams to verify physical features like facial structure that can be checked against government-issued IDs
- software called BioSig-ID that uses keystroke analysis to recognize keyboard typing patterns, based on rhythm, pressure, and style, which is nearly as accurate as actual fingerprint authentication
- ProctorU, which integrates webcams with microphones that enable well-trained live proctors to monitor and/or record test-takers, by watching body language, eye movement, or other physical attributes known to indicate suspicious behavior
Clearly, institutions like Drexel University care about identifying cheating and are willing to invest in technology and techniques to minimize its occurrence.
Myth: Plagiarism checkers are easily fooled
Reality: Cheating on tests and quizzes by obtaining outside information, or even getting the answers, is just one form of cheating. Plagiarism — the use of another’s work without citation or attribution — is and has been a top concern in higher education since long before the introduction of online learning. According to the Harvard Guide to Using Sources , “In academic writing, it is considered plagiarism to draw any idea or any language from someone else without adequately crediting that source in your paper.”
Plagiarism, both intentional and accidental, happens in all types of colleges and universities, both in traditional classroom settings and online courses. However, online course instructors may actually have an advantage in detecting plagiarism. Because online courses rely on digital submissions of all work, plagiarism detection is baked into the process.
One key reason that plagiarism is so rarely able to pass through the online submission process is due to institutional investment in LMS’s that put plagiarism and academic dishonestly front and center in the software development process. For example, Plagscan is a plagiarism detection technology that can integrate seamlessly with popular LMS applications including Blackboard, Moodle, and Schoolology. Further, the California Community Colleges Online Education Initiative partnered with VeriCite to incorporate plagiarism detection software into its LMS. As a significant network of online schools, this is yet another indicator that schools across the country take plagiarism seriously and are constantly on the lookout for the best detection methods.
Online submission applications like those offered above can automatically check for formatting errors from cut and pasted text and uncited passages that match up with other papers or sources. In the case of accidental plagiarism, students can even run their own papers through these types of detection programs via their LMS.
While no method of plagiarism detection is 100% foolproof, online students cannot expect to get away with it easily.
Myth: Online students are more likely to cheat
Reality: In a recent study from Marshall University , 635 undergraduate and graduate students were surveyed on student cheating behaviors. The researchers found that while 32.1% of respondents admitted to cheating in a face-to-face class, 32.7% admitted to cheating in an online course. The difference between these two numbers is quite small and it is also important to note that overall, more students admitted to “inappropriate behavior” vis a vis academic dishonesty in traditional classroom settings than did in online classrooms.
While results from a single study are never enough to make sweeping generalizations, the Marshall University survey certainly implies that cheating in online courses — at least under the purview of this specific university — is hardly rampant and is certainly not much more common than it is in a more traditional classroom setting.
Another study took another tack in establishing how common cheating in online exams is, as compared to face to face exams. While the Marshall study and many other cheating-based studies use self-reporting, Testing a model to predict online cheating—Much ado about nothing by Victoria Beck, examined data without relying on self-reporting. Instead, Beck uses indicators like GPA and class rank to predict exam scores, then compares those predictions with actual scores. The results of this analysis were consistent with the Marshall study and found that online students were no more likely to cheat on exams than those in face to face or hybrid learning environments.
Myth: Since all online students cheat, it isn’t that big of a deal
Reality: No matter how much easier it seems that cheating would be online, the fact is that students who choose to cheat are, as cliche as it sounds, just cheating themselves. The reality is that many students who choose to take courses online do so because they are dedicated to furthering their education no matter where or when they have to take courses. Academic honesty is critical to the continued success of online education programs and it is up to students, faculty, and institutions to ensure that the highest standards are upheld.
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Activities that Promote Awareness of What Is and Isn’t Cheating
By: Maryellen Weimer, PhD
Although some behaviors are pretty much universally identified as cheating (copying exam answers, for example), we’re not in agreement on everything. Particularly significant are disagreements between faculty and students (for example, students don’t think cheating occurs if they look something up on their phone and can’t find it; faculty consider cheating in terms of intent). In many cases, there is the question of degree (when, for example, collaboration crosses the line and becomes cheating). The effectiveness of cheating prevention mechanisms can be increased by clarifying upfront what is and isn’t cheating. Here’s a collection of activities faculty can use to ensure that students understand the behaviors that constitute cheating.
A Memo to Students on Cheating
By: Maryellen Weimer, PhD
Cheating among college students remains rampant. Our institutional and/or course policies aren’t stopping much of it. There are lots of reasons why, which we could debate, but the more profitable conversation is how we get students to realize that cheating hurts them. I don’t think they consider the personal consequences, so that’s the goal of this memo, framed like others that have appeared in the blog. You are welcome to revise it, make the language your own, and share it as you see fit with students. Will it stop cheating? Not likely, but it might make some students realize the consequences go well beyond getting caught.
December 8, 2017
But What If They Cheat? Giving Non-Proctored Online Assessments
By: Sheryl Cornelius, EdD
As online education continues to grow, so does the potential for academic dishonesty. So how do you ensure your online students are not cheating on their tests? Bottom line, you don’t. But there are ways to stack the deck in your favor.
The good news is it’s not as bad as you think. A 2002 study by Grijalva, Kerkvliet, and Nowell it found that “academic dishonesty in a single online class is no more prevalent than in traditional classrooms” (Paullet, Chawdhry, Douglas Pinchot, 2016, pg. 46). Although the offenders have become quite creative in their endeavors, the prevention remains the best defense.
September 2, 2016
Plagiarism vs. Originality: Why I [heart] Melania Trump
By: Diane Rubino
When I first I started teaching, I knew what plagiarism meant and how it related to schoolwork. But student “cheaters” challenged my beliefs. I also assumed graduate students would submit original work. So it took me by surprise when I noticed a mysterious improvement in one student’s writing capacity, well beyond the skill level he’d demonstrated earlier. When a Google search proved more than 20 percent of his paper was copied, he explained it as a computer error—he’d accidentally dropped the footnote when cutting and pasting. I lowered his course grade, but assumed it really was a snafu—not subterfuge. The (now) obvious question went unasked: Why was so much of his assignment based on other people’s insights?
November 6, 2015
Do Online Students Cheat More on Tests?
By: Maryellen Weimer, PhD
A lot of faculty worry that they do. Given the cheating epidemic in college courses, why wouldn’t students be even more inclined to cheat in an unmonitored exam situation? Add to that how tech-savvy most college students are. Many know their way around computers and software better than their professors. Several studies report that the belief that students cheat more on online tests is most strongly held by faculty who’ve never taught an online course. Those who have taught online are less likely to report discernible differences in cheating between online and face-to-face courses. But those are faculty perceptions, not hard, empirical evidence.
May 18, 2015
Why Open-book Tests Deserve a Place in Your Courses
By: Matt Farrell and Shannon Maheu
With the proliferation of learning management systems (LMS), many instructors now incorporate web-based technologies into their courses. While posting slides and readings online are common practices, the LMS can also be leveraged for testing. Purely online courses typically employ some form of web-based testing tool, but they are also useful for hybrid and face-to-face (F2F) offerings. Some instructors, however, are reluctant to embrace online testing. Their concerns can be wide ranging, but chief among them is cheating.
August 8, 2014
Promoting Academic Integrity in the Online Classroom
By: Rob Kelly
Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, advocates an instructional design/community-building approach to academic integrity rather than an adversarial approach. Her stint as a police officer informs this stance. As radar gun companies introduced improved speed enforcement tools, the latest radar detectors (often produced by the same companies) rendered such improvements ineffective. “I learned that you can’t out-tech people, and you don’t want to get into that situation. You don’t want to have that arms race. Certainly some security measures are going to be necessary, but don’t get into the habit of relying on technology to establish a climate of integrity, because it can have adverse effects. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being watched all the time,” she says.
October 18, 2013
What I Learned from Students Who Cheat
By: Melanie J. Trost
We all know that feeling. That sinking, pit of your stomach feeling when you know you have seen this paper, problem, or quiz answer before. That feeling when you know you have witnessed academic dishonesty. Your first response might be anger. You may sigh because you know you have to investigate, fill out paperwork, and confront a student. Catching and acknowledging academic dishonesty can be disappointing, enraging, time-consuming, and undeniably unpleasant. It can end a student’s academic career. What’s more, academic dishonesty can make you question your ability as an educator.
September 22, 2011
Academic Integrity: Examining Two Common Approaches
By: Jennifer Garrett
Any effort to fundamentally change a school’s approach to academic integrity requires an understanding of its current organizational response to cheating (Bertram Gallant, 2008). Organizational approaches to student cheating form a continuum from highly decentralized to highly centralized, and most…
August 22, 2011
Do’s and Don’ts for Promoting Academic Integrity
By: Mary Bart
Donald McCabe’ s 2005 article “Cheating Among College And University Students: A North American Perspective” is often cited for its sobering statistics regarding the prevalence of cheating in higher education.
The numbers are alarming and do require a serious response, but have you ever turned the numbers upside down? For example, if 42 percent of college students admit to working with others on individual assignments, that means 58 percent aren’t getting help from others and those students would like you to do something about the 42 percent. If 38 percent admit to plagiarizing, that means 62 percent aren’t plagiarizing and those students expect you to do something about the 38 percent.
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