Take an Integrated Approach to Combat Cheating in Online Courses

When considering online learning, many faculty and administrators will ask me about the potential for online learners to cheat – either by having others do the work, or by plagiarizing the work of others and representing it as their own (i.e. cutting and pasting). My response is that an integrated strategy of education, penalties, technological checks, and good assessment strategies are needed to combat cheating.

A recent survey by the Center for Academic Integrity (now affiliated with Clemson University) found that four in 10 students admitted to cutting and pasting information from the Internet without attributing a source and that 77% of respondents said that online plagiarism is “not a serious issue.” Disturbing statistics such as these point to the need for thorough and on-going education campaigns to alert students to the seriousness of academic misconduct, what it is, why it will not be tolerated, and the severe penalties that will ensue if they are caught.

In addition to education and awareness campaigns about academic integrity, many universities and colleges are also using technology to monitor and catch cheaters. For example, Turnitin has software that faculty can use to compare work submitted by students against a huge database to determine if they have pilfered the work of others. And Respondus has software that allows institutions to “lock down” online tests, so that learners cannot use other applications or go to other sites while doing such tests.

Education campaigns, severe penalties, and technological checks are prevalent and effective means of combating cheating. However, I think there is another way to combat cheating that is too often overlooked: creative student assignment and assessment strategies. It is much easier to cheat on generic assignments than on assignments that force learners to draw on personal or specific contexts. Here are some examples to illustrate the difference between generic and contextual assignments.

Urban Geography Assignment
Generic Approach: An essay on the pros and cons of multi-use development strategies in urban cores
Contextual Approach: A report on the development approach of your community, do they use a multi-use approach, why or why not, and a critique of your community based on the theories of multi-use development that were introduced in the course

Political Science Assignment
Generic Approach: An essay either supporting or criticizing the Kyoto Protocol and the likelihood of this agreement being able to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally
Contextual Approach: Interview your Congressman / Member of Parliament about his/her position on the Kyoto Protocol and critique their response versus what you have learned in the course about this agreement

Business Course Assignment
Generic Approach: An essay on the various theories of employee motivation and how these have evolved over the years
Contextual Approach: Provide a detailed case study that contrasts the approaches of two managers within an organization and have learners take a position on which approach is better, while referencing the theories on motivation that they have been studying

As you can see by these examples, generic assignments make cheating very easy via the use of Google (or online paper mills). It would be possible to cheat on the contextual assignments, but it would be much more difficult to do so. More importantly, by providing contextual assignments one hopes that learners will find the assignments to be much more interesting, relevant and engaging, so that cheating is not even a consideration.

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