The proliferation of online education has numerous benefits, all of which have been fiercely debated in the last couple of years as one university after another jumps on the bandwagon. But less talked about is the new business that thrives alongside online classes: cheating.
Cheating in academic settings is as old as academia itself. But the popularity of online courses has allowed a whole new kind of cheating to flourish. According to a report by Inside Higher Ed, web sites have been cropping up that offer to take an entire class for an interested student. Most guarantee at least a B in the class.
On their homepages, these websites try to make the case — to the busy students, the students whose first language isn’t English, the students who hate numbers or writing — that paying them to take the class is the smarter, safer option.
“Maybe the final exam is your last chance to earn a decent grade but you don’t understand the material. Perhaps working a part-time job has left you with little time to dedicate to an entire class. If you googled ‘take my online class’ you are at the right place,” reads boostmygrades.com’s website.
Combating this type of cheating is harder than it was in the olden days — you know, back in 2002. With little to no face-to-face interaction between the professor and the student, it is often up to the professor to notice little discrepancies that indicate student isn’t doing his own work. But typical identifiers of plagiarism, such as web services like TurnItIn, are often defenseless against the services that these web sites supply. One site, noneedtostudy.com, brags about the “custom made” and “plagiarism free” papers it can write for its customers.
The mechanisms already in place to prevent cheating in the online setting will have to evolve to ensure the integrity of students. Some measures have proven to be at the very least slightly effective in making cheating more difficult. Online institutions such as Charter Oak have implemented a series of identity checks, involving questions that only the actual student would know how to answer. Other universities encourage their professors to require interaction through Skype-based discussions or other means. Others advocate a move to more quizzes and written assignments instead of a couple large exams, which could make online services that charge by the assignment prohibitively expensive for students.
But the growth of an online course “black market” has made it clear that online education cannot just be conventional classes moved online. Simply posting lecture slides online and grading students based on a midterm and a final do not take advantage of the benefits of an online format. If it is to succeed as an education model, it must fundamentally change — through group discussions on Skype, large-group discussions on forums, and peer reviews of assignments — so that online classes are distinct from their classroom counterparts.