Online education is a multi-billion industry that is growing all the time, with more universities and colleges rushing to sign up students for distance learning programs and create new "profit centers." But there is a potential hitch here: cheating would seem to be infinitely easier in online courses than live courses. And if it's true that online students are cheating like crazy, the entire distance learning industry could face big problems. After all, who is going to value degrees earned online if students can cheat their way to graduation?
So what's the deal: Is cheating in online courses a big problem or not?
Intuitively, you might think so. Quite apart from the easier ability to cheat online, student cheating in general is higher in more anonymous environments. For example, giant universities filled with commuting students who attend large classes are more likely to have a serious cheating problem than smaller schools with a stronger sense of community. People feel less morally accountable to others when they don't know them well -- or at all.
Yet it turns out that distance learning does not have the cheating epidemic that you might expect. At least three studies have now looked at cheating in online courses; none suggests such cheating is inordinately high.
The most recent study of academic dishonesty in online courses, published in 2010 by George Watson and James Sottile of Marshall University in West Virginia, compared cheating by 635 students in online versus live courses. The results are surprising: While students thought they and their peers were far more likely to cheat in online courses than live courses, in reality there was not much difference in behavior between the two. Indeed, the study found slightly higher rates of cheating in live courses. Watson and Sottile write that "One possible explanation is that classroom social interaction in live classes plays some part in whether students decide to cheat. . . . Familiarity with fellow students may lessen moral objections to cheating as they work through assignments and assessments together over the course of a school term."
These findings are similar to those of an earlier study of cheating in online courses published in 2009 by three researchers -- Donna Stuber-McEwen, Phillip Wiseley, and Susan Hoggatt -- at Friends University in Witchita, Kansas. The study surveyed 225 students and found lower levels of cheating in online courses than live or "on ground" courses. The authors offer some intriguing explanations to explain the variation: on ground students may engage in more “panic cheating” than their online counterparts. Although planned cheating involves more substantial preparation, it is likely that online students usually have the opportunity to do their coursework off campus and at their own pace, and thus, are less apt to engage in panic cheating. Additionally, online students who are proctored during exams expect to be watched and may come to the exam more prepared. However, even in on ground classrooms where students expect to be monitored, cheating still occurs.
Non-traditional students reported less cheating. Most online classes at our institution are offered through the adult (evening) program, which means the average age of our online sample was older. Although arguably the online and on ground samples were not equivalent, non-traditional students in the on ground sample also reported significantly less cheating than their younger peers. These findings support previous studies that show non-traditional students are less likely to engage in academic misconduct.
Because faculty anticipate online cheating, they may develop assignments and exams to reduce the likelihood of such misconduct. For example, instructors may give challenging or timed tests, personalize written assignments, allow students to use outside materials, or work in groups, thus reducing the incidence of cheating.