Online Education Programs Tackle Student Cheating

Colleges and online providers have a variety of ways to deal with academic dishonesty.

The consequences of cheating in online courses could be severe for college students.

The consequences of cheating in online courses could be severe for college students.

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Improved technology and cheaper delivery methods have helped usher in the growth and popularity of online education over the past decade. 

According to Babson Survey Research Group's last survey of online education programs at colleges and universities, 6.1 million students took at least one online class in fall 2010—a 10.1 percent increase over the previous year. But as the number of students in online courses increases, so too does the potential for cheating. 

In online education, it's easy for students to "collaborate" on tests in ways that wouldn't be possible in the classroom, says Shannon Miranda, a senior at Ohio University who has taken three online courses in her college career.

"If the teacher schedules an exam, you can have a bunch of people in one room sharing textbooks and taking the test at the same time," Miranda says. "I know friends who have taken an online test first so the next person can have all the right answers."

[See why some students choose online education.]

While it may appear that cheating in an online setting is easier for students than in a classroom, it might not be so black and white, notes Connie Frazer, director of online learning at The Sage Colleges in Troy, N.Y.

"Academic dishonesty is an issue on [campus] and online, so we have to be diligent," Frazer says. "I don't see much distinction between on-site and online. It's all a matter of being connected to the students."

Improving the technology that The Sage Colleges uses for online delivery is one way the school has targeted academic dishonesty head on, she adds. While students can take tests together, the online system may change up questions or answers to ensure students can't cheat. Also, answers to the tests aren't revealed until every student in the course has completed all the questions.

"In our learning management system, you shuffle the questions and you shuffle the items within the questions," Frazer notes. "When a student looks at a quiz, it doesn't look anything like the quiz another student is taking. It's hard to borrow from someone else."

[Learn more about technology in the classroom.]

While she has seen student collaboration on online tests before, Diane Johnson, assistant director of faculty services at St. Leo University in Florida, says that "accidental plagiarism," where students copy another person's original work without malicious intent, seems to be more common in the online space.

"Many of our students just don't know how to paraphrase, and part of it is they don't know how to cite," she says. "It's unintentional plagiarism, but it is still plagiarism."

Johnson says that the university emphasizes educating not only students but also faculty about plagiarism. "In every single class, we have information on what plagiarism is, and a major piece is that we hold our students accountable if they're caught," she notes, adding that students have been suspended in the past for copying original work. "If you hear that one of your classmates has been reported for plagiarism, it gives you an impetus to not do it too."

Programs such as Turnitin.com, a site for plagiarism prevention and online grading, have made it more difficult for students to share work or recycle content found on the Internet, says Ohio University student Miranda. "I'm sure [plagiarism] is more common if professors ask for papers to be sent through E-mail," she notes. "But I've heard of multiple students getting caught for plagiarism through [Turnitin.com]."

[Discover how technology has helped curb online cheating in high schools.]

Yet even the threat of suspension may not be enough to stop some students from cheating, especially those who may go through a program that offers massive open online courses (MOOCs)—many of which are free and result in a certificate of completion rather than college credit.

In August, The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that Coursera students in at least three humanities courses had complained of plagiarism by other students. In response, Coursera added an honor code agreement, in which each student must renew his or her commitment to academic honesty each time he or she submits assignments for peer grading.