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Could Online Courses Prompt More Students to Cheat?

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This past week was filled with reports about colleges struggling with the realities of bringing students back to campus. One reality that plagued administrators was students' disregard for COVID-19 safety protocols. The internet has been filled with videos of student "gatherings" (aka parties) and other situations that have led to the spread of the virus. This has led to some colleges reverting to online courses. One high profile example is the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.


In the week prior to the start of UNC-CH classes, only 10 cases of infection were reported, a relatively small number in relation to the size of the student body. This past week, however, with students back and "gathering," 130 cases broke out. This is what required administrators to proclaim the move from in-person teaching to online, a move that more schools will be likely to take.

Because online courses have emerged as a central issue in higher education, the issue of cheating has risen in prominence. The temptation could present itself psychologically due to student isolation. Obviously, students could cheat under non-pandemic circumstances, but sitting home alone at a computer inspires a feeling of being "out of sight" of authority.

Survey Reveals Students' Cheating Habits

Diane Hollister, writing at the start of the mid-March lockdown on Pearsoned.com, cites some amazing survey statistic that say a lot about student integrity and the potential temptations of online education:

Cheating isn't new. Many students do it, and in many different ways. As courses move to online environments, we might wonder if the lack of the instructor in the classroom makes it more likely cheating will happen. Technology certainly changes how students cheat.

A 2017 study by Kessler International reported that 76 percent of surveyed students said they had copied text from someone else's assignments. Slightly more (79 percent) admitted to plagiarism from internet sources. Around 72 percent said they'd used mobile devices to cheat.

An astonishing 42 percent of students admit to purchasing custom papers or essays online, and 28 percent have paid someone to do their online work. Sadly, many of them thought it was ok to cheat

Plagiarism is among the more common temptations to cheat, which has led to the development of software tools that allow instructors to check whether a student is turning in original work or not.

One such software product is Turnitin, as in "Be careful before you turn it in." Is this something to be aware of, as you deal with the avalanche of college writing assignments? Here are some comments that might help you decide:

  • Students are heading back to campus. And when they finish writing that first paper of the year, a growing number will have to do something their parents never did: run their work through anti-plagiarism software.
  • One company behind it is called Turnitin. And the database it uses to screen for potential plagiarism is big. Really, really big … [The] paper gets checked against about 45 billion web pages; 110 million content items from publishers, scientific journals, et cetera; and 400 million student papers to provide an originality report.
  • The company is now used by more than half of all higher ed institutions in the U.S. and by roughly a quarter of all high schools. Turnitin isn't the only company doing this, but it is the biggest.

Comparing student writing with a database that size is an amazing process. Students should be aware of how Turnitin works. Once they understand how meticulously their papers are compared with what already has been published, the urge to "borrow" someone else's writing should be quelled.

Online Learning Has Its Limitations

When doing some research about plagiarism, I found a site called Plagiarism Today. It addresses issues of plagiarism, which are apparently significant enough to merit a dedicated website. Jonathan Bailey raises a few significant points relating to plagiarism and online learning:

The most glaring difference between an online class and an in-person class is that the instructors rarely get the opportunity to meet, interact with or get to know their students, at least not in person. This understanding is often a first line of defense when it comes to plagiarism as instructors can sometimes tell when something is "off" about a student's work or their behavior and take the opportunity to dig deeper

This relates to the "home alone" syndrome I mentioned, where students allow their physical isolation from teachers to lower their resistance to unethical work. Bailey comments on some limitations of online learning:

  • Lack of Environmental Control: Even in large classrooms, instructors and their assistants can control the environment to curb cheating. This includes plagiarism by forcing students to write essays or answer open-ended questions in class, often with "blue book" exams. Online classrooms can not control the environment of their students.
  • Easier to Confirm Which Students Are in the Class: With a physical space, it's easier to ensure that the student taking the course is the one in the class and the one taking the exam. Many schools implement scanners to determine which students are in the classroom. Online students, on the other hand, can easily give their credentials to others, sparking businesses that will literally take the class (and assignments) for them.
  • Greater Access to Other School Resources: Students at physical classes often have easier access to student resources such as the library and student success centers. Students that are struggling in online courses may feel more alone and may struggle to get the help that they need, depending on how the school is structured.

Plagiarism is just one temptation dangled by online education. The broader arena of cheating is enhanced by a variety of technological tricks shrewd students can exploit. Bailey wrote these prophetic comments in mid-2019:

Online education, to put it plainly, is the future for schools and universities. While it's tempting to wring hands and wince at the new kinds of cheating and plagiarism it enables, it's also important to look at the enforcement opportunities it brings.

Online education means big changes for academic integrity, but it doesn't necessarily harken a wild west of cheating. If schools consider academic integrity as they make the transition and bake it into their processes and technologies, there's no reason that online education should be anymore plagiarism- or cheating-friendly than regular classes

The question is whether schools are going to go into the online world thoughtfully and with a plan for academic integrity or if they're going in blindly without considering potential misuses

Hollister also issues fair warning to online students:

Colleges and universities have implemented a variety of tactics designed to minimize cheating. They include tools such as the following:

  • Clearly defining cheating and setting expectations …
  • Academic integrity policies …
  • Using proctored exams …
  • Restricting IP addresses …
  • Use a Lockdown Browser …
  • Utilizing keystroke verification software …
  • Embedding text-matching software …
  • Variable testing …

Students should be aware of their schools' policies so they can ensure they stay within the integrity guidelines, whether classes are taking place online or in person. Ask yourself the following two questions as the new school year ramps up:

1. How's your integrity level?

2. How serious is your school about discovering it?

Your answers will make a difference in your college experience.

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