College Guide


December 03, 2012 11:00 AM Online Education Invites New Ways to Cheat

By Jamaal Abdul-alim

Banking on students looking for shortcuts to graduation, a shadowy enterprise has been posting numerous ads on the Internet offering to take online courses in statistics, algebra, and other tough subjects in exchange for a fee.

A man reached by phone at the business - which is associated with onlineclass365 at and has posted thousands of online ads on websites such as and saying things such as “Why study, when you can call us? We can take each of your classes for you!” - initially denied being an online course-taker for hire.

“I’m not taking classes for anybody,” the man said initially.

But when the man was informed that the reporter had hired four journalism students to go undercover and respond to his numerous online ads, which feature his e-mail address and offers such as “if your (sic) stuck on a class let us help you out,” and “we’ll take any class for you,” the man changed his tune.

“I’m just a small fish making a few hundred dollars a month helping people out,” said the man, who identified himself only as “Jason” but used other identities when speaking with journalism students that were tapped to speak with him undercover.


Experts say it’s difficult to determine the size and scope of the kind of cheating that involves individuals taking courses for others in exchange for money. At the same time, one scholar notes that there has been a “dramatic increase” in sites that offer services for hire that include contracting out discussion board assignments and papers, among other things.

“A common form of online cheating is referred to as contract cheating or cyber-pseudepigraphy,” said Keith Sisson, a University of Memphis professor who also serves as associate editor of the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, explaining that those things could involve purchasing papers from paper mills or paying others to complete assignments or examinations. Very little quantitative data elucidates the problem, he said, “probably because of its opaque nature.”

Online education providers say they’re spending millions of dollars on technology to curtail it. “It is a problem,” said Alex Clark, spokesman for the Apollo Group, which owns the for-profit University of Phoenix.

“When you have new technology, new ways of teaching, it obviously presents new opportunities to cheat,” Clark said. “It’s just a sad reality for higher education and academia in general that there are people who always will cheat.”

Indeed, cheating at the college level has garnered substantial attention this year, a notable example being a case in which Harvard determined that roughly half of the more than 250 students taking an introductory level course “may have committed acts of academic dishonesty.” It has also been the focus of recent books, including Cheating in College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do About It, by Donald McCabe, Kenneth Butterfield and Linda Trevino.

Accrediting agencies require institutions of higher learning to put safeguards in place to ensure that the student who is enrolled in an online class is actually doing the work. Those who fail to take adequate steps to prevent online cheating risk penalties that include fines and the loss of eligibility for students to get financial aid.

Clark said the University of Phoenix has invested $100 million in proprietary technology to detect fraud.

“We have a lot of ways of determining if a student who logs in is that student,” Clark said. “We don’t like to talk about it so we don’t tip off would-be cheaters.” Clark said Phoenix has technology in place to scan Internet Protocol, or IP, addresses to search for irregularities.

“Hackers and people who sell their services as cheaters have ways to hide or disguise their IP address, but we have ways to get their real IP address,” Clark said. “One of the things we do all the time for everyone who logs into our system is look at their IP address and we look for patterns.”

If a student with a particular IP address suddenly starts using another, or logging in from multiple IP addresses, Clark said, “that sets off a trigger.”

Another way to ensure that the enrolled student is the one taking the online course is to ask random security questions or to rely on CAPTCHA technology.

“The idea is to make it difficult for someone to log on with someone else’s credentials,” Clark said. “We look for unusual behavior or activity to try to prevent unauthorized or unethical access to our system.”

Strayer University, a smaller for-profit college, has also invested in technology to catch would-be cheaters but was similarly guarded in speaking about it.

Randi Cosentino, Strayer’s provost and chief academic officer, said Strayer has a “fairly robust process in place” to catch students who have someone else doing assignments on their behalf. Similar to identity verification systems used by financial institutions, Strayer’s system uses publicly available data on students to ask “challenging questions” such as where they lived during a certain timeframe, she said.

“In the moment, students need to answer (the questions),” Cosentino explained. “If the student fails such a test, we will drop them from the course until they have a face-to-face conversation with the student.

But do these high priced, high technology products work? Do they deter or detect real cheaters?

Jamaal Abdul-alim is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who specializes in coverage of higher education.


  • ceilidth on December 04, 2012 8:57 PM:

    What is equally likely and much harder to stop is when a family member using the student's computer does the work for them.

  • Laura DeSena on December 08, 2012 4:20 PM:

    Part of the conversation should include a distinction between synchronous online instruction and asynchronous online courses. Cheating by identity theft is harder to accomplish in a virtual classroom where students and instructor log on in real time to engage in critical discourse. The time commitment alone required of Jason and his ilk would be costly and prohibitive.
    I would also like to address LoShiavo's comment -- new assessments for 21st century learners who have access to e-resources should be generated. Students should have open access to resources on exams: exams should test synthesis of these resources and critical thinking skills. Instructors have to re-visit assessment in the 21st century and that is a good outcome of this issue: promoting higher level thinking skills in our students.

  • Brian on December 17, 2012 7:39 PM:

    That is the problem with mass education. You want to have as little as teacher involvement per student as possible therefore you use little value added testing that usually has no lasting long-term education value and allow cheating.

    Yet another reason why college degrees are become worthless.