Online cheating in American colleges

Online cheating in American colleges

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The blunders of technology are once again in the news, as the Affordable Care Act’s website continues to wobble around.

The Army has just sold back its $300 million science-fiction airship — used one time — for $300,000 to the British company that made it.

If the past is any predictor, our ventures into technological wonders have too often ended in disappointment.

As an educator, I have seen waves of enthusiasm for each new gadget or mode of instruction. My older daughter, who is now at UC Berkeley, is astonished to find all but one of her teachers still uses chalk on a blackboard. Yet the 2013 Academic Ranking of World Universities places her college at third best in the world. Also frustrating for her - Berkeley has not exactly embraced online instruction. Perhaps it takes the problem of the incredibly high rates of cheating in these courses seriously.

In an elaborately designed set of three studies at Ohio University, researchers “found that 72.5 percent of students reported cheating” in online work. Though signing an honor code has been found to reduce cheating by students in conventional classes, signing such a code didn’t seem to matter for their online students. It did matter if some instruction was done in person.

The hypothesis is that exclusively online instruction erects such a distance between students, they no longer believe following an honor code is important.

At the same time college teachers and administrators are asked if online cheating is a significant problem, studies have found they think not. It’s as if they can view their own subjects with objectivity, but when it comes to research on online cheating, they prefer not to face facts.

One of the problems is that college teachers just aren’t savvy about it. Most of us are not computer wizards. We do not understand how easy cheating is, and we don’t have instruction about the problem.

Brief discussions with my students have revealed interesting strategies. For example, if a student fears his work is being turned in too late for credit, he can turn back his computer’s clock and change the date and time of submission. The answers to many test questions can be found with quick Google searches. More industrious students go to sites revealing the correct answers.

There are numerous potential solutions, but most are flawed.

Cheating occurs in onsite instruction, but indicators are it happens at a lower rate. The best solution is probably to have all students be onsite for exams and show photo IDs, or at least come for one exam, perhaps the final, but it’s doubtful that many colleges will demand that.

Right now, as teachers and administrators around the nation refuse to face the facts that online cheating is a truly serious problem, we are not about to have on-campus proctoring. But we can at least begin to talk about the problem objectively and openly.

It appears that most students in these courses are learning three important lessons beyond whatever they might be learning about their subjects - that cheaters do, indeed, prosper, and that cheaters don’t hurt themselves so much as those who are playing fairly - and are also trying to get good jobs and get into good graduate schools.

Finally, in a cruel turn to cynicism, cheaters are learning that climbing over your classmates’ necks by cheating to get ahead is not so bad, if most are doing it anyway.

The road to recovery is first to admit we have a problem. Then we can begin serious discussion.

Michael Guista is a professor of English at

Allan Hancock College.

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