Safeguarding Against Online Cheating

Safeguarding Against Online Cheating
By Ronald Roach

Like many of his peers at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), Melvin A. Greene had anticipated that teaching online courses would be expected of him at the Adelphi, Md., campus that specializes in adult and online education. The prospect that students might resort to cheating or plagiarism didn’t worry Greene too much because he focused more on getting his teaching techniques to fit the online format.
“I was feeling my way through the course,” Greene says of the first online teaching experience he had this past spring.
Greene did happen to notice on a question-and-answer exercise he had students to complete that some of the answers of a few students appeared to have been lifted from sources, possibly from Web sites.
“I could tell the answers were not their own,” he says.
Realizing that he had failed to advise students against turning in work that was not their own, Greene treated the incident as a teaching lesson for himself and has vowed to instruct students in detail about plagiarism and university policy on it in future courses.
“I’m not sure that most students really know what plagiarism is,” Greene says.
While online distance education has found wide acceptance in higher education over the past five years, there remains concern among administrators, faculty and accreditors that the potential for abuse by cheating students is a serious threat to the integrity of online education. The fears of educators have largely revolved around the anonymity of the online teaching and learning process. When students are unknown face-to-face to their instructors in an online class, they are believed more likely to have others to sit in for them during online instruction and exams, and more likely to resort to plagiarism, according to the conventional wisdom. This belief has attracted strong criticism and opposition by many who have been either teaching or administering online courses and have discovered the opposite about online education.
“Most of the doubts about today’s online education can be traced to the 1960s, when fraudulent correspondence schools gave a bad name to distance education,” says Dr. Wallace K. Pond, chief of academic affairs at Education America Online, a 20-campus for-profit virtual university system.
Pond takes the position that cheating is far more rampant in the traditional classroom than it is in online classes. The evolution of online education has unfolded in such a way that the potential for cheating is minimized because of the constraints it has in comparison to traditional lecture hall and classroom teaching, according to Pond. The predominant mode of online education offered by community colleges and other higher education institutions has become rooted in courses where class sizes are limited to 25 students, according to experts. This relatively small size in an online class has a safeguard in that faculty members are more likely to have working knowledge of individual student abilities than they are in a traditional lecture course size where hundreds of students may be enrolled, Pond argues.
“(Higher education) has learned that you can’t put 500 students in an online class. So far, quality online education has demanded small class sizes and interactivity between students and teachers,” he says.
Higher education officials believe high online interactivity can act as a safeguard against students who are inclined to submit work that is not their own. If an instructor is using threaded discussions, short papers, live chat sessions and other forms of interactive online instruction, it’s possible for that instructor to develop a strong sense of an individual’s writing style and thinking, according to Pond.
“For the time being, I think this is the way online education is going to fly,” Pond says.
Whether the mode of online education mitigates cheating, college faculty members, such as UMUC’s Greene, are seeking answers about what to expect in the online teaching environment. Typically, faculty members have to implement safeguards by trial-and-error measures.
Dr. Shelton Rhodes, an assistant professor of economics at Bowie State University, says that while it is impossible to eliminate cheating completely, technology will yield improved methods for preventing students in online classes from doing so. In five years of teaching online classes at Maryland institutions such as UMUC, Rhodes says he has yet to find evidence of cheating by any of his students. But he designs his courses to minimize the possibility that students might find ways to cheat.
“There will be more safeguards in the future,” Rhodes says. 



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