Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Cheating and the Online Environment

Cheating is an ongoing concern and a reality in both face-to-face and online settings (Oosterhof, Conrad, & Ely, 2008). If it is more common online there are at least two possible explanations: one, the physical separation inherent in online learning facilitates cheating among those who are so inclined (Rowe, 2004); and two, online instructors may assess students more frequently in attempts to validate student performance (Oosterhof, Conrad, & Ely, 2008), and more frequent assessment means more frequent occasions to cheat.

The nature of cheating has changed from copying answers from a student at the next desk to deliberately “crashing” a timed test to gain more time, hacking into instructor accounts and previewing assessment questions, and even changing grades in online student records (Cizek, 2001). Our society's reliance on test scores has risen dramatically over the last decade – driven at least in part by technologies that enable the administration and scoring of broad-scale assessments quickly and cost-effectively - and with that has come a disturbing trend of educators cheating and enabling or encouraging students to cheat (Cizek, 2001). In this climate, cheating (for some) has become a form of political or social protest: “Generally, there appears to be a growing indifference on the part of educators toward the behavior and even an increasing sense that cheating is a justifiable response to externally-mandated tests” (Cizek, 2001, p. 17).

The steps to be taken to minimize cheating in an online environment depend on the nature of and motivation for the cheating. For the purposes of this discussion, I offer three “global” strategies: creativity, judgments, and software.
Creativity in instructional design can reduce the frequency of cheating. For example, it is more difficult to cheat on a group project, performance assessment or essay test than on a multiple-choice quiz (Rowe, 2004). Designers can also “build in” security with frequent opportunities for assessment throughout the course or training. This can be particularly helpful in online learning where instructors don't have the benefits of face-to-face contact for assessing their students.

Humans are hard-wired to make judgments. Online instructors need to consider what they know about individual students (including their demonstrated abilities and the quality of their work) and group assessment norms and trends, and make judgments about whether cheating may have occurred. Also, instructors should consider the amount and type of work they assign. Some students report that they cheat because the workload is too heavy or the assignments are boring or meaningless (Stephans & Wengaard, 2001).

Software exists that can help increase testing security and minimize cheating. Assessment Systems Corporation is one company (I'm sure there are others) that offers test authoring, hosting, and psychometric services.

Should the definition of cheating evolve along with the tools we use to produce work in an online environment? A week ago, I would have answered, “No. Cheating is cheating is cheating and it's wrong.” But Maher (2008) has changed my thinking. “If a student is going to talk with a bunch of other students and network with them to exchange information to produce a paper, isn't that a skill that we want them to take to the workplace? If I can find someone who is working in advertising and who knows how to push a product, and they can collect information from other sources and borrow and steal and put it together and reshape it, isn't that a skill that I want them to have?” (Maher, 2008).

So perhaps the definition of cheating should evolve to fit with current notions of “work” and “learning”. But where, then, is the line between “collaboration” and “copying”? Maher has this to say: “... say that you're going to do something else that you can look at other people's projects, but the way I assess what you're doing is going to take into account that you're going to look at what other people are doing. Your work still has to be original, but to get inspiration from other people and to craft your work in response to theirs or alongside theirs is not something that's necessarily a problem.”I love that idea on its own, and I love it even more when I overlay Cizek (2001): “From the broadest perspective, it may be useful to entirely reconceptualize testing so that successful test performance can be more consistently and directly linked to student effort and effective instruction, and so that unsuccessful performance is accompanied by sufficient diagnostic information about students’ strengths and weaknesses” (p. 10).



Cizek, G. J. (2001). An Overview of Issues Concerning Cheating on Large-Scale Tests. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Council on Measurement in Education, April 2001, Seattle, WA.

Maher, S. (2008). Interviews. Retrieved from

Oosterhof, A., Conrad, R.-M., & Ely, D. P. (2008). Assessing learners online. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Rowe, N. (2004). Cheating in online student assessment: Beyond plagiarism. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 7(2). Retrieved from

Stephans, J. M., & Wangaard, D. B. (2001). Teaching for integrity: Steps to prevent cheating in your classroom. Retrieved from

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