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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.