This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.
I have served as the Director of Online Education at my institution since 2007. In that time, I have watched approximately 200 instructors develop and teach their first online courses.
One of the major reservations that I’ve heard those instructors express about teaching in the online format is the concern that cheating is easier, if not actually widespread, in online classes.
This concern became clear to me when I taught my first online course in 2005, one of the first online courses offered at my institution. As I developed and then taught an introductory general-education course online, I found that a colleague in my department who taught the same course face-to-face, was adamantly opposed to the idea. Her primary concern: How do we really know the students are who they say they are and that they are turning in their own work?
After offering this course online a number of times, it became obvious there was high student demand for it; it would fill within hours of being open for enrollment. One semester I extended an offer to my colleague to co-teach the class with me, the same colleague who was opposed to the idea and opposed to online teaching in general. She accepted my offer with misgivings.
So we taught the class together. At the end of the term, the comments my colleague made were pretty astounding. Gone were the concerns that students were cheating, turning in others’ work, or worse yet, having someone else take the class for them. She raved that the quality of the course assignments — there were seven of them — were higher from the online students than her face-to-face students.
I acknowledge that this scenario is completely anecdotal and is a sample of one; however, I’ve heard this same kind of feedback from dozens of other instructors at my institution and from across the country.
Cheating has been a concern and a topic of research in higher education for many years, and it continues to garner wide attention. I’ve seen conference themes based on cheating, and I’ve seen academic journals with special issues dedicated to the topic.
While preparing this article, I used my own institution’s library to conduct an EBSCO host database search for publications with the word “cheating” in the title. The result: over 25,000 hits. After carefully reading all of those articles, book chapters, dissertations, etc. (OK, I read some), I came to the conclusion that trying to sift through the scientific research on cheating is difficult and maybe even a bit messy.
While much has been written and published about cheating in face-to-face courses, I could locate only a handful of studies examining cheating in online classes. The authors of one study reported more cheating in online courses, the authors of another study reported more cheating in face-to-face courses, with the authors of the remaining articles reporting no difference in cheating prevalence based on class format. More research needs to be conducted and published on this topic before accurate conclusions can be drawn from the scientific literature.
Keep in mind that conducting research on how much or how often students cheat is challenging. Many of these studies rely on student self-reported data, and I’ve read studies that report as few as 3% of students surveyed reported cheating, with other studies reporting as many as 73% reported cheating.
Additionally, there are multiple variables that need to be considered: a student’s academic rank (undergraduate vs. graduate), the type of course being offered (general education course vs. a course required in a student’s major), the teaching style of the instructor and the types of activities and assessments in a class (multiple choice exams vs. essay exams or reflective papers), the number of strategies instructors use to deter cheating in their course, etc.
If cheating were rampant in online courses, one would think that student grades would be higher in classes offered online. So in preparation for this article, I also asked a colleague in my university’s office of institutional research to run a query comparing grades in online and face-to-face courses. We examined grades from over 2,000 online courses and over 2,000 face-to-face courses. We learned that the average grade-point average for online courses was slightly lower than face-to-face courses, 3.35 and 3.44, respectively. I’m not a statistician, but I would guess the difference in these grade-point averages is not statistically significant.
As an administrator, I do feel it is important to provide instructors the support they need when they encounter a student cheating in a class. Many institutions have established protocols for such events, and those protocols should be shared with instructors. From my experience, that is not the case at all institutions, and instructors are sometimes left on their own to figure things out.
Tools and strategies to help minimize cheating
Another way an institution can support faculty is to provide tools and strategies they can use to help minimize cheating in online courses. Here are some examples:
1. Use software designed to detect plagiarism. Turnitin is one example. These types of software can inform an instructor how much of a student’s work is the same or similar to existing Web content.
2. Use a proctoring service such as ProctorU, which requires students to show identification and complete assessments such as quizzes and exams while being monitored through their webcam.
3. Use timed quizzes and exams. It is common to allow students one minute per question while completing these types of assessments. For quizzes and exams, instructors could also use a large library of questions, and those questions could be presented to students in a randomized manner.
4. Revise course assessments (quizzes, exams, assignments, projects, etc.) from one term to the next.
5. Use higher-order questions or prompts on assessments so students need to do more than simply memorize and recall information.
6. Have students turn in assignments, papers and projects in chunks or segments so an instructor can monitor the progression of students’ work over the course of a term.
7. Share an institution’s honor code with students and/or have students sign a contract stating they are who they say they are and will complete all work for that class on their own.
Again, cheating is by no means a recent phenomenon. We’ve all heard stories of students who have kept filing cabinets full of old exams, papers and projects to share with other students. On the surface, it may appear that cheating could be easier in online courses, but the current published literature does not support the idea that cheating is more prevalent in online compared to face-to-face courses.