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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 gmail.com and has posted thousands of online ads on websites such as Craigslist.org and Backpage.com 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.

OnlineCollegeCheating

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?

When told about Strayer’s technology, Jason dismissed it as ineffective.
“If you’re aware of that system, all you have to do is gain contact with the person who knows that answer,” Jason said. “It’s a pretty stupid system.”

He repeatedly minimized cheating in online education and lambasted for-profit colleges and universities such as Phoenix and Strayer as being corporations - and not true institutions of higher learning - that are more concerned with the bottom line than helping students.

“They have no interest in education,” he said. “Their interest is in making money,” he said. “I think they have bigger things to worry about than one or two people cheating.”

Phoenix promises that it has “a lot of ways of determining if a student who logs in is that student.” Cosentino, of Strayer, said while a student enrolled in an online course may get away with an instance of cheating, say on an exam or a single assignment, it’s “nearly impossible” for a student to have someone else take an entire course and not get detected.

Cosentino, who reviews appeals of students accused of cheating, said she couldn’t recall any cases where suspected cases of cheating involved having someone else take an entire course.

The lack of actual cases of course-takers for hire being exposed makes it possible that the Jasons of the world are actually scam artists who know full well they cannot game the system. Or perhaps they’re good enough not to get caught.

In order to learn more about Jason’s operation, a few student journalists, posing as students interested in cheating, looked into the company affiliated with onlineclass365.

Ryan Arrendell, a senior majoring in broadcast journalism at Northwestern University said that when she called the number listed in the ad, the man who answered said he said he had been taking courses online for students for about five years. A statistics course, he said, would cost from $500 to $700. A statistics course at the University of Phoenix is on the “higher end” because the school requires six posts per week for a participation grade. “Their course is a pain,” the man said of the University of Phoenix.

When Arrendell asked about having the man take an online statistics course at Strayer University, he said Strayer’s course includes a discussion section and an ongoing project, is more straightforward and something he could do for $300.

The man, who would require half the payment at the start of the course and the other half after the final exam, said he could guarantee an A or a B grade

When Tamerra Griffin, a journalism graduate student at New York University, contacted the company she received a 13-word reply, sent from someone who purported to be Tom Galo. It read: “yes, I can help you to do entire course with guarantee an A.”

Galo indicated that Griffin needed to send him a syllabus to get an exact price, but that most courses would cost between $600 and $800 for him to take. Half the money should be paid up front, he said, and the rest upon completion of the class. He also said he could guarantee an A or B grade.

He assured Griffin that her professor would not find out that he was taking the course for her.

It’s unclear as to the extent to which technology actually catches or curtails cheating in online education. Both Phoenix and Strayer declined to give figures on how many cases of cheating they detected through their anti-cheating technology

Perhaps the greatest problem is that there’s a pretty serious disconnect between the type of cheating schools like Phoenix can detect using sophisticated technology (logging on using a different IP address) and the type of cheating that students seem to actually use (the real student just pays someone else to do all the work in the course). If the real student never logs on, the system can’t tell he’s not really taking the course.

Experts say there are things that instructors can do - technological as well as non-technological -to combat cheating in online education, but it requires meticulous effort, not just a lot of gadgets.

Frank LoSchiavo, a psychology professor at Ohio University - Zanesville and co-author of a study that found as many as three-quarters of students cheat during online exams by consulting textbooks or other course materials, said faculty should take responsibility for curtailing cheating in their online classes.

“Instructors that care about the integrity of their courses — online or otherwise — require that students complete proctored exams,” LoSchiavo said. “There are several high-tech options as well, such as having students take exams at home while in front of a webcam.

“No reasonable testing procedure is completely safe, but reasonable safeguards — such as requiring proctored exams, requiring identification — should stop most fraud,” LoSchiavo said. Image via]

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

Comments

  • 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.