Plagiarism, Academic Integrity and Online Education

Graduating student.

As students and faculty gear up for the 2019 school year, one thing is certain: More of them than ever will be doing it in an online classroom, at least for some of their classes.

The growth in online education has been accelerating over the past few years . According to a 2017 report, 31.6% of students were taking at least one distance education course making up over 6.3 million students. Those numbers are set to rise.

However, as schools have gone all-in on online education, with approximately 89% of four-year colleges offering some online courses, they’ve brought with them unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to academic integrity.

These issues were one of the key takeaways from the 2019 International Center for Academic Integrity conference and have been on the minds of educators across the globe.

The truth is that, as with many things technology-related, online education has grown faster than we have been able to process its impacts and nowhere is that more clear than with academic integrity.

In short, online education has opened up a whole new world of cheating opportunity that many are looking to exploit even as the schools themselves are often struggling to get a handle on it.

The Challenges of Academic Integrity Online

Masked person.

The most glaring difference between an online class and an in-person class is that the instructors rarely get the opportunity to meet, interact with or get to know their students, at least not in person. This understanding is often a first line of defense when it comes to plagiarism as instructors can sometimes tell when something is “off” about a student’s work or their behavior and take the opportunity to dig deeper.

But this weakness is hardly new nor is it unique to online courses. For many schools, basic and common courses often have hundreds of students, limiting interaction between instructors and students. Simply put, in many physical classrooms, many teachers never interact with all or even most of their students.

That being said, there are still limitations created by online classrooms, even when looking at larger classrooms.

  1. Lack of Environmental Control: Even in large classrooms, instructors and their assistants can control the environment to curb cheating. This includes plagiarism by forcing students to write essays or answer open-ended questions in class, often with “blue book” exams. Online classrooms can not control the environment of their students.
  2. Easier to Confirm Which Students Are in the Class: With a physical space, it’s easier to ensure that the student taking the course is the one in the class and the one taking the exam. Many schools implement scanners to determine which students are in the classroom. Online students, on the other hand, can easily give their credentials to others, sparking businesses that will literally take the class (and assignments) for them.
  3. Greater Access to Other School Resources: Students at physical classes often have easier access to student resources such as the library and student success centers. Students that are struggling in online courses may feel more alone and may struggle to get the help that they need, depending on how the school is structured.

In short, physical classrooms do present certain safeguards against certain types of cheating, including some kinds of plagiarism. That said, there’s not a significant difference between a student that writes a paper at home and submits it electronically, whether they do it in an online or in-person class.

In fact, in many types of assignments, online education can actually help reduce plagiarism and cheating. That’s because the technology that makes online education possible also helps with plagiarism detection but also ensures equity and fairness to the students.

The Advantages of Academic Integrity Online

It can be very difficult to see any advantages to online classes when it comes to academic integrity but there are definitely some worth considering:

  1. Consistent Use of Technology: Plagiarism detection and anti-collusion tools are powerful instruments for detecting many types of plagiarism. However, instructors often don’t apply them consistently. The nature of an online classroom makes it easier to ensure all papers get at least a cursory check.
  2. Reduction in Bias Issues: As we saw in the recent Baylor controversy, bias allegations often play a role in plagiarism investigations. Online classrooms can reduce these issues by anonymizing both grading and academic integrity. This is something that Western Governor’s University, a large online university, has already implemented.
  3. Additional Technological Defenses: One of the lessons from the ICAI conference was how online education cheaters are often caught by their electronic trail. Whether it’s logins at wildly distant places or erratic account activity. Online education makes it easier to track student activity and

In short, online education makes it easier to consistently use the anti-plagiarism tools already available and brings in new tools to detect strange and unusual behavior. While it’s easy to think of online education as a surrendering of control over students simply because they aren’t physically present, the technology actually gives new kinds of tracking and monitoring.

Best of all, since this tracking is digital, automated tools can be used analyze and parse it. While we lose the watchful eye of proctors and instructors, we gain the watchful eye of technology and it could be a tradeoff worth having.

Setting aside obvious privacy concerns for the sake of this post, it’s very possible that online education may give schools and instructors an even better idea of what their students are up to than they ever had working with a purely physical university.

Finding the Balance

For schools turning to online education and concerned about academic integrity, the obvious challenge is finding ways to increase the benefits of online education and mitigate the weaknesses.

One good first step might be to stop assuming that online students cheat more. A 2009 study actually found in-person students were more likely to cheat than their online counterparts. Though the study didn’t dig into reasons, it was hypothesized that online students are generally older and may have more time to prepare for assignments.

That being said, there’s many reasons to take the study with a pinch of salt. It’s notably an older survey (from a time when online education was much less common) and the survey was wholly self-reported. Still, it’s at least an indication that attitudes about online education may not be wholly correct.

Despite that, it’s still clear that online education does enable new types of cheating, including the aforementioned paying someone to take a course for you, and schools would be wise to look out for it.

That said, there are a few things schools can do to minimize the risks of cheating while still encouraging online education.

  • Require Video Chat: While one of the appeals of online education is the ability to take classes in your pajamas, requiring video chat can be a powerful tool for ensuring the person taking the class is the student. This approach is used by many schools, including Harvard.
  • Provide the Technology: Some schools provide students with the laptops to take their online courses and limit them to using those devices. This too can cut down on students giving their credentials to a stranger and is another guarantee that the student in the class is who they say they are.
  • Make Use of Your Data: Online education inherently produces a lot of data about its students. Login times, IP addresses, durations of visits and more. Parsing that data can find anomalies and point to students that may be cheating.
  • Block VPNs: Blocking VPNs is a tall order. Even tech giants like Netflix fail to do it completely. That said, there are tools such as IP Intelligence that provide tools for blocking suspected VPNs. Nonetheless, VPNs are one of the most popular tools for those cheating in online classes and, most likely, are better off blocked, even if they can’t be blocked completely.
  • Continue Encouraging Interaction: Online education doesn’t mean the death of teacher/student interaction. Finding ways to encourage interaction digitally can help instructors form that bond and understanding of their students that can reduce and detect unethical behavior.

While these are relatively straightforward steps, schools should also look at taking larger ones such as anonymizing grading/academic integrity, broadly applying plagiarism detection tools and crafting assignments that resist both plagiarism and other kinds of cheating, even virtually.

Even if online education does not result in an increase in cheating and plagiarism, it does bring with it new challenges and schools need to be ready.

Bottom Line

Online education, to put it plainly, is the future for schools and universities. While it’s tempting wring hands and wince at the new kinds of cheating and plagiarism it enables, it’s also important to look at the enforcement opportunities it brings.

Online education means big changes for academic integrity, but it doesn’t necessarily harken a wild west of cheating. If schools consider academic integrity as they make the transition and bake it into their processes and technologies, there’s no reason that online education should be anymore plagiarism or cheating friendly than regular classes.

While it’s true that online education provides challenges and there is more that needs to be done in this area, including more research, there are a lot of opportunities too.

The question is whether schools are going to go into the online world thoughtfully and with a plan for academic integrity or if they’re going in blindly without considering potential misuses.

Online education has a wide variety of opportunities. Fortunately, those opportunities do not necessarily require sacrificing integrity.

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