Political Animal


December 03, 2012 4:36 PM Online Cheaters

By Ed Kilgore

At College Guide today, we feature a web-exclusive report by freelance higher ed journalist Jamaal Abdul-alim about the growing problem of cheating by students on online college courses.

The proliferation of such courses—and of schools—typically for-profits—specializing in online higher education has made this a big, big problem. And as Abdul-alim reports, some of the measures being taken to improve security in online exams may be entirely missing the mark:

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.

“Entrepreneurs” running ads offering to take courses for “consumers” seem to charge in the range of $300 to $800, depending on the difficulty of the class and how elaborate its requirements might be.

Are there better methods out there for preventing this kind of fraud that are not yet extensively used? Maybe so, suggests Abdul-alim:

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.

Sounds reasonable indeed.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • David M. on December 03, 2012 5:12 PM:

    One method of assessing students, which as an instructor I personally like, is open-book exams. If you let students use their own course materials (and you let me know in advance), then they will take better notes and they can also be expected to answer more difficult questions. This would not work in every field granted, but it is a way to "go with the flow" of what has become a very "socially mediated" environment. Tell them to share all they want, but be prepared for the tough questions!

  • Mark Gisleson on December 03, 2012 5:17 PM:

    Shouldn't be an issue no matter how you cut it. If the course impacts your ability to do a job, the employer hiring you should be able to figure out if you know your stuff or not. That's why you're only a probationary employee when you start out: employers are the best judge of whether or not you learned anything.

  • Barbara on December 03, 2012 5:35 PM:

    Mark, If on-line cheating is notorious and widespread it means that employers are unlikely to credit an on-line degree. No doubt employers can find out, but they are disinclined to want to waste resources making the effort. This is why employers use "proxy factors" to try to determine whose degree is more likely to be a true reflection of their skills.

  • rdale on December 03, 2012 5:37 PM:

    This is in the news in Utah right now over ESL classes taught to Saudi students at Southern Utah University. An ESL instructor there claimed that she found evidence of rampant plagiarism, and that the ESL students were being given passing grades unfairly. Here's the first story but there have been updates:


  • Retief on December 03, 2012 5:44 PM:

    Why have the courses at all? If we're going to give credit for passing a proctored exam, why not just have the exam and let students prepare for the exam however they want to? If they want to learn it all from an old text book, or by watching videos delivered online, or if they want to hire a tutor, or go to live lectures all that would be left to the student's choice.

    Isn't this what most traditional lecture courses do in practice? No attendance is taken, they're big enough that regular class participation is not graded. Students are responsible for learning enough to do the projects or tests.

  • Mark Gisleson on December 04, 2012 11:04 AM:

    Clay Shirky explains why this is just a minor distraction, and why massive online classrooms are the future: http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2012/11/napster-udacity-and-the-academy/