College Guide


June 05, 2012 1:00 PM Online Courses Make Cheating Easier

By Daniel Luzer

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


  • veblen's dog on June 06, 2012 4:05 PM:

    Well, duh.

    I had a co-worker who did this years ago with a group of her classmates. They formed a "co-op" with a couple humanities types doing all the humanities classes of the science types, and science types doing the science /math work for the humanities types. On-line made it really easy.

  • Tim Michael on June 06, 2012 4:25 PM:

    Unfortunately, it's not purely a design issue. Even though I have essay tests in my courses I still have students who try to go to the Internet to get answers, which of course they can't. Not only are the answers not there, but they don't have time during my tests to go out looking, and they run out of time and flunk. And even though I make it clear that I'm going to check their answers against those of other students, I still have students try to cut-and-paste answers from documents that they've worked up with others (usually, the answers aren't right in any case).

    The real trouble we face is that so many of our colleagues don't do ANYTHING to stem cheating, and students become dependent on it to pass. When they then get to a challenging class they do not have the skills needed to learn in a systematic fashion, and they don't have the patience or sense of pride over their hard work either.

    I wish it were as simple as using "alternative assessment methods," but it isn't. Often that terms simply means "making it easier" and that bodes ill for everyone.

  • Timothy D McCollum on June 06, 2012 10:19 PM:

    I very recently completed my second BS at Eastern Oregon University, completely online. The vast bulk classes required frequent participation online, essay exams, and final formal papers.
    I found the online format to be vastly superior to in the class education. I say that after having already earned an AA, with honors, another bachelor of science, and a JD, requiring attendance. The online format allowed for much more investigation on my part, and was superior in all aspects, other than making long-term friends.
    EOU generously gave me 12 lower division vo-tech units for my 140 at law school.
    I cannot recommend it highly enough!

  • reidmc on June 06, 2012 11:48 PM:

    @Timothy: with all that education, I'm surprised you weren't able to link your comment to the premise of the post, or to either of the previous comments.

  • Timothy D McCollum on June 07, 2012 12:02 AM:

    Hi reidmc:

    I was never confronted with any reason to consider cheating, or any opportunity to do so, that I know of.

    Other than one professor that was poor, and one that was mediocre, all the faculty was good to excellent, and I learned a great deal. I sort of long ago decided that any form of cheating would diminish what I was learning, which is the reason for my taking the courses.

    Had reply space not been so limited, I would've commented that all of my classes involved only 20 to 30 students.

    My decades of law practice, following decades of a business career, do not make me a computer maven. More accurately, other than blackboard, illiterate.

  • Executive Education on July 17, 2012 6:08 AM:

    i do not agree with this thing as online education is an alternative not a cheating source.It only helps people who really want to study to brighten their future not bye cheating atleast.