Online Classes Subject to Cheating

By: Jenna Savage

Due to their flexibility and low cost, online classes are becoming more popular among students and higher education institutions alike. However, the increasing availability of online course work has raised concerns about cheating and the ease with which some students are able to abuse the online education system to pass without genuine effort. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education addresses the subject of cheating within online classes by sharing the story of a “Bob Smith,” who managed to cheat during his online class’s exams by utilizing Google Docs. The article brings attention to the fact that academic dishonesty in online classes is a prevalent problem that educators need to tackle.

Cheating during exams isn’t the only kind of cheating seen in online classes. In fact, even traditional, campus-based students have been known to cheat, especially when it comes to essays. In a previous article, the Chronicle reported on an essay-writer known as the Shadow Scholar, who gets hired to write unique papers for students that can afford his company’s services. Confessions like his (or hers) raised concerns about the number of cheaters who are escaping educators’ notice.

In response to the obvious need for counter measures to such widespread cheating, some professionals are trying to develop programs and techniques to make cheaters stand out among students. John Fontaine, who works for Blackboard, is working on developing a way to determine a document’s fingerprint — to track word patterns and repetitive vocabulary — to make hired writing stand out, even if it isn’t plagiarized from a source work.

Colleges and universities are also responding to the problem of academic dishonesty. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is considering analyzing the typing signatures of its students, to ensure that the students are producing their own work. They are also debating the use of webcams to verify student identity, as many computers now have built-in webcam features. The hope is that these measures will enable them to prevent cheating — and to catch those who are earning passing grades unfairly.

The Chronicle quotes James Wollack, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, as pointing out that cheaters are working together to develop and use methods of academic dishonesty, and that researchers must combine their efforts to combat such teamwork: “Unless the testing industry also pools its resources, we’re always going to be playing this game of catch-up.”

Researchers are beginning to do just that. Over 100 recently met at the Conference on Statistical Detection of Potential Test Fraud, the Chonicle reports. By increasing concentrated efforts, researchers and educators can work on preserving the integrity of both online and traditional education.