How schools are preventing cheating in online degree programs

Cheating. It's certainly not a new practice. Many students do it, and in many different ways. Now with the continued rise of online degrees -- including massive open online courses, or MOOCs -- some experts cannot help but wonder if the freedom to complete courses without a professor in the room makes web-based degree programs fertile grounds for cheaters. Fortunately, schools are on it.

How Do Online Students Cheat?

If the great cheating scandal of 2013 at Harvard University, one of the nation's most prestigious institutions, taught us anything, it's that no institution is entirely cheater-free. This is true of both online degree programs and classroom-based courses, though methods vary. Janice Karlene, who teaches business, online and off, at LaGuardia Community College and Thomas Edison State College, told OnlineDegrees.com that she has known traditional students to photocopy final exams and post them online, text in the room, and even open browsers to consult with Professor Google during exams. Online students, on the other hand, may use unauthorized books during tests, share information with other students (in cases where students do not complete tests synchronously), and even pay people to do their work.

"Technology changes how cheating is done rather than making it easier," said Karlene.

Craig Markovitz, Ph.D., owner of Viking Tutors and Beat The ACT in Minneapolis, is inclined to agree. He recalls instances where students from both camps have tried to hire tutors to complete their work for them, often under false pretenses. But while Markovitz says that cheating "is rampant even in traditional classrooms," he worries risks are greater in web-based courses.

"Online courses and exams certainly make it easier for dishonest students to cheat," said Markovitz. "Without someone present to monitor and discourage these practices, some students don't understand the consequences or ramifications of their cheating."

It seems he may be on to something, even in the case of MOOCs -- web-based courses, offered at no cost, taught by big name colleges -- despite the fact that most do not even result in credit. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that University of Michigan English Professor Eric Rabkin taught an online science-fiction course to about 40,000, through the MOOC platform Coursera, in which he asked students to grade each other's work. Forums lit up with complaints of plagiarism, with entire passages being lifted straight from Spark Notes or students' Ph.D. theses.

Schools do not take these matters lightly, especially online schools and MOOC providers who are still working to establish their credibility and prove their courses are just as effective as classroom-based classes. Many schools have been quick to respond to cheating, and in developing ways to prevent it.

How Online Colleges, MOOCs Prevent Cheating

Online colleges and MOOC providers have implemented a number of tactics designed to minimize (and eventually eliminate) cheating. Methods range from simple, old-fashioned tactics to those so high-tech they would pique James Bond's envy. Among them:

  • Proctored exams -- Many schools require students to report to campus or official off-site testing centers for proctored exams. Markovitz says his tutors have been asked by South Dakota State University to serve as third-party proctors, who oversee tests and ensure no rules are broken. Still, reporting to testing centers can be a challenge, especially for remote students. Enter: remote proctoring. According to The New York Times, a company called ProctorU uses webcams and screen sharing software to watch test-takers remotely. Another firm, Software Secure, takes footage of test-takers, which is later reviewed by three independent proctors.
  • High-tech scans -- Some online colleges use tools like retina scanning and facial recognition software to identify test-takers, who often must submit a photo ID beforehand. The Wall Street Journal reports that EdX, another popular MOOC platform, has even used palm-vein scans.
  • Keystroke verification software -- Keystroke verification software is perhaps one of the most common tech-based cheater prevention methods. The approach is simple: Students type a short phrase, which is then analyzed by a software program. The program learns students' typing speed, rhythm and other characteristics, like how long they tend to depress certain keys. Before a student can turn in homework or take a test, they must submit a new typing sample to ensure it exhibits the same trends.
  • Variable testing -- Last year, two University of Virginia professors published a paper recommending that online professors and MOOC providers administer different tests on the same content, reducing the likelihood of students sharing exams. They concede that this can make grading difficult, particularly in courses with thousands of enrollees, but it is effective.
  • Honor codes -- Honor codes are perhaps the simplest methods of deterring cheating in online courses, though they work only indirectly. The Guardian reports that after its brush with plagiarism, Coursera required all students to sign an honor code at the beginning of each program vowing that they would not cheat. Students who break this code are dismissed from the program and do not receive certificates of completion.

Efforts such as these -- and, perhaps, just the threat of them -- are bound to minimize cheating, though it is unclear how effective they are. Nonetheless, no system is perfect, and some experts warn there is still much work to be done.

Challenges, Failures in Online Cheating Prevention

Online degree programs are making strides in preventing cheating, but some experts, like Karlene, believe they could do more, beginning with teacher training. In the classroom, a professor's watchful eye tends to be the first line of defense against cheating. Not so in an online environment. But even in cases where teachers could spot cheaters, not all are trained to do so.

"Cheating has gone from writing on the hand and on the bill of a baseball cap and passing notes to technological means," Karlene says. "It might be helpful to educate faculty about the new ways students cheat, because some of them are stuck in note-passing watch."

But what about those high-tech scanners and software programs? Are they infallible? Not necessarily. San Wu, a former federal prosecutor who now defends college students in private practice, told OnlineDegrees that these methods are not only imperfect, but sometimes result in false accusations -- costing students dearly. She said some schools misuse these tools, or adopt an "illogical policy" of ignoring intent in plagiarism cases.

"Generally, I am quite critical at the poor investigation job done by the universities and resulting injustice to students" said Wu. "The injustice is particularly painful as it regards online students given that many online students are particularly dedicated and have overcome obstacles to pursue their education."

Students Cheat, Who Loses?

Online and traditional schools will surely continue to develop and refine anti-cheating initiatives, but no system is perfect, and some offenders are relentless. Even in low-stakes scenarios, such as non-credit MOOCs, cheaters cheat.

"Dishonest students will always find a way to beat the system," warns Markovitz, recalling Craigslist ads from anonymous posters offering to complete online courses -- from start to finish -- on students' behalf. Still, those who skirt the rules and opt out of vital work are bound to lose eventually. "Students who cheat, whether in the classroom or online, are only doing themselves a disservice," he says.

"How can universities stop students from cheating online?" The Guardian, March 14, 2014, Harry Slater, http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/mar/14/students-cheating-plagiarism-online
Interview with Craig Markovitz, July 31, 2014
Interview with Janice Karlene, July 31, 2014
Interview with Shan Wu, July 30, 2014
"Keeping an Eye on Online Test-Takers," The New York Times, March 2, 2013, Anne Eisenberg, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/03/technology/new-technologies-aim-to-foil-online-course-cheating.html
"U.Va. Educators Offer Strategy to Clean Up Cheating in MOOCs," UVA Today, University of Virginia, June 3, 2013, Audrey Breen, http://news.virginia.edu/content/uva-educators-offer-strategy-clean-cheating-moocs
"Web Classes Grapple With Stopping Cheats," The Wall Street Journal, February 14, 2014, Doublas Belkin, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324906004578292361415395332