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Think Twice Before Cheating in Online Courses

Devon Haynie, Josh Moody

There are a number of reasons why college students should think twice before cheating in online courses: Namely, they cheapen their degree and, in some cases, they can even get caught.

"When students cheat, they aren't cheating us as much as they're cheating themselves out of the education that they're here to get. They're not accomplishing what they're really here to do," says Justin Harding, senior director of instructional design and new media at Arizona State University--Tempe.

Educators say punishment can vary based on how egregious the academic dishonesty is, but such behavior can ultimately lead to a suspension or even expulsion from a college. Still, warnings about academic dishonesty sometimes falls on deaf ears.

"A lot of people cheat a little," says David Pritchard, a physics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied academic dishonesty in online classes. "There's also a few people who cheat a lot."

According to numbers from the International Center for Academic Integrity, 68% of undergraduate students admit to cheating on assignments. But research suggests that online students are no more likely to cheat than their on-campus peers. Research, however, is murky and inconclusive, with some studies suggesting that online students cheat more and others finding the opposite to be true. But thanks to tools that monitor academic dishonesty in online courses, some experts argue that cheating on the web is harder than in a traditional classroom.

"The amount of technology that's readily available now can be superior to a faculty member recognizing a student cheating in a face-to-face classroom that has 300 students in it. The likelihood of someone recognizing that is not very strong," says Jason Ruckert, vice chancellor and chief digital learning officer at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.

[See: Discover the Top 20 Online Bachelor's Degree Programs.]

But online tools like plagiarism checkers, video proctoring, lockdown browsers and IP tracking alone can't stop academic dishonesty. Colleges also rely on curriculum design to keep students from cheating.

"If a student is going to do it, they're going to do it, but we try to make it as difficult as possible," says Vicki Harmon, instructional design and manager of professional development at ASU--Tempe.

College faculty members work with online education support staff to develop assignments that aim to be cheat-proof. Ideally, experts say, these assignments break away from multiple choice exams and require students to demonstrate knowledge gained in class.

"One of the ideal ways to deter cheating is by utilizing institutionally developed content that focuses on authentic assessment and forces the student to think critically. This type of design is much harder to cheat on, versus a multiple choice exam question where you can attempt to Google the answer," Ruckert says.

And it isn't students alone that are trying to game the system. Companies willing to complete student assignments are nearly ubiquitous. A quick web search turns up services for writing papers, completing online exams or even taking entire classes.

Experts say the emergence of companies willing to blatantly engage in academic dishonesty for a profit was unexpected in the early years of online education. Now schools monitor the services these companies offer and have strategies to put a stop to the cheating.

"I think for many of us in higher education that was somewhat of a surprise to us. But we worked diligently on the issue and started discovering new ways and technologies to utilize on the institution's behalf to ensure that academic dishonesty was kept to a minimum. And I believe that those institutions who are truly using a multitiered approach through course design and technology are doing a great job in preventing academic dishonesty," Ruckert says.

But those companies are not immune to being caught, leading to consequences for students. Below are some of the current technologies instructors use to keep students in check.

Online Test Proctoring

When students take exams in their own home, it can be hard for school officials to verify their identity. As a result, many schools have hired companies that provide online proctoring during exams.

Through the use of a webcam on the student's device, employees from the company can watch the test-taker's face and computer screen as he or she takes the exam. Before students start the exam, they have to show their driver's license or another proof of identity, such as a student ID. ProctorU, one such company, works with more than 1,000 institutions, according to its website. Other companies, such as Examity and Proctorio, offer similar services.

Additionally, Ruckert notes that the school can monitor video footage to see if a student walks away from the exam, uses another device or has someone else take the test for them. Likewise, he says, some institutions use a custom browser that prevents students from conducting web searches during exams.

[Read: 7 Ways to Reduce the Cost of an Online Degree.]

Plagiarism Detection Software

The learning management systems online students use to submit their work increasingly include plagiarism detection software. One of the most well-known tools, Turnitin, scans vast amounts of web content to determine whether a student's work matches existing material. The scan looks for materials available online as well as papers that have already been submitted by other students and scanned into the Turnitin system by faculty members at schools across the nation.

Harding says that plagiarism is the most obvious form of academic dishonesty online -- and one of the easiest to catch thanks to technology. Students may also get caught for improperly citing sources, which often is merely a matter of not understanding how to do so properly.

The rules around submitting collaborative work may also generate confusion, experts say, which is why faculty members need to clarify expectations. For instructors, that means communicating to students what is acceptable in terms of academic integrity.

"What's allowable in one class may be considered cheating in another class, particularly if you're working on a group project or something like that. The frequency or the ability to communicate with other students while taking a test might differ from faculty to faculty. It's very important that the instructor identify and explain what they consider to be cheating in their class," Harmon says.

Keystroke Recognition, IP Tracking, Biometric Scanning

Sometimes cheating is more sophisticated than plagiarism or looking up answers during an online exam.

One particular challenge for schools can be catching impostors -- companies willing to complete classes -- masquerading as students. Vendors have risen to the challenge by offering equally sophisticated tools. Colleges can track keystrokes to identify typing patterns for a particular student, track a computer's IP address and even require biometric identification through iris or fingerprint recognition.

"Is one login coming from this part of the world and another login coming from another part of the world? There are aspects like that, that can culminate to raise flags about potential issues," Harding says, explaining how schools use IP tracking to catch academic dishonesty.

[See: 10 Low-Cost Online Colleges for Out-of-State Students.]

Ruckert believes the ability to catch cheating in online courses is only going to improve thanks to forward-thinking vendors and colleges. Due to evolving technology, he believes cheating online will only become more difficult in the future.

"With higher education, we're lucky that we have a lot of amazing faculty as well as vendors that are forward-thinking and finding new ways to mitigate all different forms of academic dishonesty. I believe, in the future, we'll see even better academic honesty in online education, where it might stay status quo in face-to-face education," Ruckert says.

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