Online Courses Make Cheating Easier

Online courses offer the promise to deliver college education to students at much cheaper prices.

While some have concerns about quality, many institutions are eagerly offering online courses as a way to cut their costs of operation.

The trouble is that it turns out online education makes cheating a lot easier. An article by Jeffrey Young in the Chronicle of Higher Education offers one example of how it worked. Several students figured out a way to collaborate with friends in order to game examinations for an online course. One of these students, Bob Smith,

Is a first-generation college student who says he works hard, and honestly, in the rest of his courses, which are held in-person rather than online. But he is juggling a job and classes, and he wanted to find a way to add an easy A to his transcript each semester.

Although the syllabus clearly forbids academic dishonesty, Mr. Smith argues that the university has put so little into the security of the course that it can’t be very serious about whether the online students are learning anything. Hundreds of students took the course with him, and he never communicated with the professor directly. It all felt sterile, impersonal, he told me. “If they didn’t think students would do this, then they didn’t think it through.”

A professor familiar with the course, who also asked not to be named, said that it is not unique in this regard, and that other students probably cheat in online introductory courses as well. To them, the courses are just hoops to jump through to get a credential, and the students are happy to pay the tuition, learn little, and add an A.

The precise details of the way Smith (a pseudonym) managed to cheat on the course are perhaps not so important here. Naturally courses designers are aware that students will attempt to cheat on online courses, and will do their best to keep one step ahead of the students.

But Smith might have a point. It’s sort of hard to feel a real sense of moral responsibility when you’re taking a huge, impersonal online class (and one, incidentally, that you’re paying the same price to take as your real courses, despite being much cheaper for the college to administer). Is it really cheating if the course itself is fake?

The course designers will probably try, as the article puts it, to “fight technology with more technology.”

Good luck with that. But there’s only so far designers can go with this. It might be more effective to address the root cause here and fight technology with less technology.

Sure, students will cheat at anything if you make it easy enough. But there are, simply put, some particularly low-quality forms of teaching that inspire students to cheat.

As I pointed out a few years ago, if instructors assign projects on which students can’t cheat, or can’t very easily cheat (essay exams, problem sets, term papers requiring outlines, bibliographies, and multiple drafts) they won’t. More importantly, they’ll learn the information better.

Or you could just go with more technology; it sort of depends on your priorities.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer