One of the barriers to the wholesale adoption of online learning is the difficulty in detecting and punishing cheating. Without teachers supervising their students directly, student dishonesty – especially in the form of having another person complete the assigned work – becomes much more complicated.
That isn't to say that the possibility of academic misconduct has put the brakes on the growth of online learning entirely. On the contrary, according to the data provided by the Babson Survey Research Group, last year the number of college students who took at least one online course grew by more than 10%.
But anyone who has ever taken such a course admits that the format lends itself to cheating much more easily than a course taught traditionally, which typically includes taking supervised and proctored exams.
In online education, it's easy for students to "collaborate" on tests in ways that wouldn't be possible in the classroom, says Shannon Miranda, a senior at Ohio University who has taken three online courses in her college career.
"If the teacher schedules an exam, you can have a bunch of people in one room sharing textbooks and taking the test at the same time," Miranda says. "I know friends who have taken an online test first so the next person can have all the right answers."
For Connie Frazer, the director of online learning at The Sage Colleges in Troy, New York, dealing with cheating in an online course is just a part of dealing with academic dishonesty in a college setting. Technology provides just another front on the fight against this problem, but doesn't fundamentally change the game.
For Sage, that means the problem created by technology could be solved by a more judicious application of the same.
While students can take tests together, the online system may change up questions or answers to ensure students can't cheat. Also, answers to the tests aren't revealed until every student in the course has completed all the questions.
"In our learning management system, you shuffle the questions and you shuffle the items within the questions," Frazer notes. "When a student looks at a quiz, it doesn't look anything like the quiz another student is taking. It's hard to borrow from someone else."
What makes it easier is the fact that "collaboration" isn't the main problem when it comes to online cheating. Instead, according to Diane Johnson, students in online courses tend to disproportionately run afoul of the rules against plagiarism. Johnson, who is an assistant director of faculty services at St. Leo University in Florida, says that most of the plagiarism that anti-cheating programs detect is of an unintentional rather a malicious variety, and comes about because students aren't skilled at either paraphrasing or citing.