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 students 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 arent
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 instructors 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
coursethings 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 proctors ID as well as the students ID, so that the exam
cant 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 students 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 instructors 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 cant receive a passing grade in the course without successfully
completing the final exam, cheating on the earlier exams will avail them
But it is also advisable to structure multiple opportunities
for assessing student learning into a course in addition toor even
in place ofexaminations. 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
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
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 students 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
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 Marylands 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 dont
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 McMurtrys suggestion in "e-cheating:
Combating a 21st Century Challenge," and spend some time surveying
whats 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 students 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, its true.
But so too does detecting and prosecuting 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
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,
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
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,
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,
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