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May/June 2002 - Curbing Academic Dishonesty in Online Courses
By: Mike McNett
Keywords: Online Education, Online Courses, Cheating, Dishonesty, Plagiarism


In discussions among both new and veteran online instructors, some of the most persistently expressed concerns center upon issues of academic honesty. How does one conduct assessments in an online course? How can you be sure that the person taking the test is actually your student? And that they are acting alone, without the book? With the proliferation of online term-paper mills, how can you be sure that the essay or term paper you receive is actually your student’s work?

These are genuine and significant concerns, ones which must be addressed if web-based courses are to be an effective form of delivery. Fortunately, the same technologies which seem to offer new opportunities for cheating also offer new ways to detect and prevent cheating. This article will examine some of the ways that technology and course design can be used to preclude academic dishonesty in online courses.

Conducting Assessments in Online Courses

How do you prevent cheating on an assessment when you aren’t able to observe your students as they take the test? There are a variety of possible approaches, ranging from traditional, face-to-face proctoring to interactive, automated, online tests.

Proctored exams, one of the most venerable techniques for controlling cheating, are still possible with online courses. Students can be required to take midterm and final examinations within a specified timeframe (a week, for example) at an on-campus testing facility where they are required to provide proof of identity. When, as often happens in online courses, the student lives outside of the instructor’s home district, this can be more problematic, but arrangements can generally be made for alternative proctoring by a library or a corporate human-relations department. For Illinois-based online students, the Illinois Virtual Campus administers a network of forty testing centers throughout the state ( http://www.ivc.illinois.edu/Students/map.htm ).

Of course, requiring students to come to campus may be at cross-purposes with the legitimate reasons they have for taking an online course—things such as geographic isolation, schedule conflicts, or a physical disability. Fortunately, such course-management systems as WebCT and BlackBoard have capabilities which make it possible to administer a proctored examination online. Tests can be structured to require the input of a proctor’s ID as well as the student’s ID, so that the exam can’t be started until the proctor, who knows the secret password, is present. It is also possible to limit access to a test to a specific computer at a specific internet address, where a proctor can be present.

Course management systems also allow an instructor to limit access to a test to a specific date, and even a specific block of hours on that date, as well as limit the time available for the actual completion of the test to a period short enough to make looking up the answers difficult. Generally, the user-tracking functions in a system such as WebCT will also make it possible for an instructor to determine the time at which each question was answered by the student. This can be particularly informative when two or more students are found to have given the same answer to the same question at the same moment!

Another technique which helps reduce the opportunities for cheating on online exams is the use of question banks. Several course-delivery software packages support the creation of databases of questions from which the software selects items, according to rules set by the instructor, for inclusion in the test. When used in their simplest form, these capacities allow for randomizing the sequence of questions, making it difficult to memorize and share the sequence of answers with friends. But it is also possible to use alternative questions to assess the same learning, and the most sophisticated of the software allows the construction of interactive tests where a student’s response will determine what question will be presented next.

The effective use of these tools and techniques require a substantial commitment of time and energy on the instructor’s part, and this may make it desirable, from the standpoint of course management, to limit the number of occasions on which they are used. You may, for example, wish to make only the final examination a proctored, on-campus test. This increases the chances for cheating on intermediate exams, perhaps, but if the students can’t receive a passing grade in the course without successfully completing the final exam, cheating on the earlier exams will avail them little.

But it is also advisable to structure multiple opportunities for assessing student learning into a course in addition to—or even in place of—examinations. Depending upon the subject matter of the course, small group projects, case studies, simulations, portfolios, learning contracts, and group discussions can all be appropriate and effective tools for determining how well your students are learning. And all of these activities are readily adaptable to the online settings. For more specifics, please see the ION resource "Instructional Strategies for Online Courses" at http://illinois.online.uillinois.edu/IONresources/
instructionalDesign/instructionalStrategies.html .

Whose Paper is This?

In an era when students can copy and paste text from web pages and online journal articles directly into their papers, or even obtain whole papers at no cost from literally thousands of online repositories, how can you catch cheaters?

The essential warning signs of possible plagiarism are no different online than in the traditional classroom: style, usage, and grammar which are above or below that student’s usual performance; passages which are inconsistent in verb tense or documentation style with the rest of the paper; lack of a bibliography, or one in which all the sources are quite old; anachronisms. In addition, materials lifted from the web may have such visual clues as text without top or bottom or side margins; words which are grey or lighter than the rest of the text; or possibly even a URL at the top or bottom of the pages.

If you suspect plagiarism, entering an odd or particularly distinctive phrase from the paper into a major search engine such as Google or Hotbot may quickly turn up a source. Given the variations in indexing strategies among search engines, however, it may be necessary to repeat the process with several more.

Several commercial services and software packages are available which can reduce your effort in tracking down plagiarism. These include TurnItIn.com, IntegriGuard, CopyCatch, Glatt Plagiarism Screening Program, and Essay Verification Engine. Most are fee-based, though reasonably priced, and some offer free trials to faculty. The University of Maryland’s University College Center for Intellectual Property maintains a page at http://waldorf-cccc.umuc.edu/distance/odell/cip/links_plagiarism.html with links to evaluations of these services.

If you are intent upon finding the smoking gun, and search engines don’t yield the results you need, and your institutional budget would provide for a commercial service, you may want to try searching through the paper mill sites directly. Margaret Fain and Peggy Bates of the Kimbel Library at Coastal Carolina University have compiled an extensive list of more than 150 term-paper sites, including ones that specialize in particular academic disciplines.

Even with a prepared list, though, searching through 150 sites is obviously not an easy proposition. In the face of such a task, the wisdom of proactively designing assignments to preclude cyber-plagiarism becomes clear. For example, instead of using the Fain and Bates list to find a plagiarism after the fact, one might follow Kim McMurtry’s suggestion in "e-cheating: Combating a 21st Century Challenge," and spend some time surveying what’s already available in the paper mills before assigning a topic.

Detailed guidelines for constructing plagiarism-resistant assignments are available at several web sites (please see "Preventing Plagiarism" in the Resources section at the end of this article), and several common themes emerge from them. First, allow sufficient time for students to write a paper. Anecdotal evidence suggests that deadline-driven desperation is the most common motivation for plagiarism. Second, structure large-scale writing projects incrementally and monitor students’ progress. Once you give them adequate time to write the paper, you will still need to verify that they are using the time wisely. Requiring incremental submissions of topic statement, outline, annotated bibliography, and rough drafts both prevents procrastination and deadline-hysteria and, more importantly, allows you to get to know the student’s writing style and spot any sudden changes in topic. Third, require the incorporation of unique resources, such as material from the course textbook or lectures, or from a local and highly current media source. Fourth, require, or assign, a perspective upon the topic which involves analysis and synthesis, rather than repetition of facts.

These techniques do require considerable time and thought, it’s true. But so too does detecting and prosecuting plagiarism.


Recognizing Plagiarism

Henry, Jacquie. Internet Research: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Gananda High School, 09/28/01

Nowakowski, Fran. Detecting and Preventing Plagiarism. Dalhousie University Libraries, 01/21/02

Pearson, Gretchen. Electronic Plagiarism Seminar. Noreen Reale Falcone Library, LeMoyne College, 07/30/01.

Senechal, Gregg. Dead Giveaways. Plagiarized.com, 2001.

Plagiarism Detection Services and Software

Center for Intellectual Property. Plagiarism--Detection Services. University of Maryland University College, 2002. http://waldorf-cccc.umuc.edu/distance/odell/cip/links_plagiarism.html#detection

Preventing Academic Dishonesty

Bates, Peggy, and Fain, Margaret. Easy Steps to Combating Plagiarism. Kimbel Library, Coastal Carolina University, 03/05/99. http://www.coastal.edu/library/easystep.htm

Davis, Barbara Gross. Preventing Academic Dishonesty. University of California, Berkeley, 04/11/02.

Grayson H. Walker Teaching Resource Center. Handling Academic Dishonesty. University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, 10/02/00

Harris, Robert. Anti-Plagiarism Strategies for Research Papers. Virtual Salt, 03/07/02.

McKenzie, Jamie. The New Plagiarism: Seven Antidotes to Prevent Highway Robbery in an Electronic Age. From Now On, Vol. 7, No. 8, May 1998.

McMurtry, Kim. e-cheating: Combating a 21st Century Challenge. T.H.E. Journal, November 2001.

Teaching. Learning, and Technology@SUNY, 22 Ways to Handle Technology Enhanced Cheating. Office of Advanced Learning and Information Services, Office of the Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, State University of New York, 12/14/01. http://tlt.suny.edu/cheating.htm

Van Belle, Greg. How Cheating Helps Drive Better Instruction. Plagiarized.com, 2001.


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