Combating Cheating in the Education System

By Dr. William Overton
Faculty Director, English, Humanities, and World Languages at American Public University

It will be hard to rival the example of low academic integrity set by Aaron Swartz, 24, who was charged with hacking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology network and stealing nearly 5 million academic articles (reported on YAHOO! NEWS and The Chronicle of Higher Education). Oh, I need to mention that Aaron was a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.

Is there something wrong with this picture? Swartz was charged with computer (wire) fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, among other serious federal violations.

How do we define ethics in academics, anyway?

Stealing documents, cheating on exams, plagiarizing essays and now discussion forums—these are unfortunate trends that all institutions of higher education strive to eliminate whether they’re online or ground based. Cheating takes on different forms depending on the institution and we, as educators, are responsible for helping identify and eliminate it. As an example, many universities are using software and common sense to mitigate the buying and selling of forum discussion posts, which are critical components of online learning.

Forum cheating works like this:

A professor prompts a discussion, asking students to respond to a question about the assigned reading for the week. Joe College (the student) reviews the question, but hasn’t read the assignment and chooses to take the easy way out. He sends the question along with a payment of $9.00 to a self-proclaimed tutoring service. In return, Joe College receives a blurb that he then posts as his own response. The “tutor,” then makes the same information available to other students for the bargain price of $4.00.

You may think I made this up, but no, this is an actual example of schemes that have been uncovered and resulted in the student being charged with plagiarism.

Why do students cheat?
In order to combat cheating, let’s first look at several reasons that I believe students behave this way:

  • Some simply do not believe the course is important enough to their degree path to warrant any extra effort; in other words, they simply play the lottery and take the risk.
  • Some are confused about the rules of documentation and some have not learned how to locate and track credible sources. Often these students have postponed taking even basic general education courses until their junior or senior year because, as they sometimes openly declare, they hate to write. As instructors, these are the students we need to identify and work with closely to educate.
  • Students often plagiarize because they have little confidence in themselves or they simply do not understand the material or lack academic preparation.

At American Public University, a leader in online education, we utilize the latest plagiarism detection software, but more importantly, we rely on vigilant instructors to proactively uncover cheating and to limit opportunities for cheating. It’s also incumbent upon us to give our students the tools to be confident in their academic abilities and choose learning over taking short-cuts.

[Learn about the fundamentals in the Foundations of Online Learning class at American Public University.]

When acts of cheating are discovered, the action that must be taken is rather straightforward. As an educator, you must let the student know that you are aware of the infraction, and that this is unacceptable behavior. Do try and make a judgment on whether the infraction was an honest error or due to malicious intent. If you deem it to be an honest error, then it may be acceptable to allow one correction or resubmission opportunity. However, if it’s malicious, be firm and use the policies and tools available to you to discipline the student.

What can faculty do to stop online misconduct?
I, along with Dr. Linda Moynihan, Dean for the School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University, attended a webinar in July that addressed this topic. In this webinar, the speaker, Dr. Gallant, noted that cheating is extensive and almost always opportunistic and situational. Therefore, a little fudging is justifiable in the student’s mind.

Dr. Gallant stressed some things we can do to prevent cheating and other online misconduct. First, we should know our audience. Online students, accordingly to Dr. Gallant, want to do what they want, when they want. In addition, completing course work shouldn’t disrupt their lives. My position on this is that these students are to be dealt with by denying them any credit and the incident should be reported to the registrar for academic adjudication.

If someone has committed plagiarism, for example, we must be able to determine if it is the result of an honest mistake or if there is malicious intent. In the first instance we must educate; in the second instance, we must discipline. It is best to also maintain clear relationship boundaries in the classroom. For example, I don’t permit students to use my first name rather than “Professor,” or “Dr. Overton.” Enabling students to refer to teachers by their first name lowers the level of respect. Consistently enforced details like these, no matter how small, help students realize that our university provides a valuable education, not a convenient degree. As instructors we must not only educate, we must also help to build a culture of integrity.

How can we create a culture of integrity?
Dr. Gallant noted that instructors should be a role model of integrity by being respectful, being fair, and being on time with our feedback. Don’t expect students to post on time if you don’t grade on time. In addition, I believe you should give feedback that is professional and helpful. Always provide a thoughtful explanation and guide students to more helpful information. And do not ever insult a student. Consistently monitor your classrooms and be sure to avoid grammatical, spelling, or syntax errors in your posts. It will raise the standard for which you are trying to achieve in your class.

Make certain that you establish expectations for each assignment. Rubrics are an excellent starting point to achieve this goal. Also, standardized exam questions need to be rotated and updated to avoid the “answer pool syndrome,” which is common amongst fraternity students at brick and mortar institutions. And yes, this does exist online if students share papers with each other.

Finally, understand that cheating in its many forms is fairly widespread, but a strong deterrent is that you first establish a culture of integrity in your classroom. Set the stage for your students by employing the knowledge of plagiarism and cheating in the beginning, and be open and available for feedback if a student needs more help on an assignment. If a student is struggling, be sure that he or she understands that as an instructor, you’re available for guidance on how to complete the assignment. If your university provides tutoring services, help the student get the help that’s needed. Through these proactive steps and resources, we perpetuate a culture of integrity by helping students choose learning over cheating.

About the Author:
Dr. Overton holds a PhD degree in Adult Education, Research Emphasis, an MA in English, and an MPA. He has been with APUS since 2005 and is a Professor of English. He is a Director of Faculty in the School of Arts and Humanities. He served in the United States Army as an NCO.



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