My parents instilled in me the old adage “Cheaters never prosper.” Later, one of my bosses quipped, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying!” I believe that most of my students were raised to adhere to the former philosophy and act with integrity, however, not a semester passes that I don’t engage in at least one conversation with a colleague related to ethics in the online environment. The most recent discussion was related to a student who plagiarized a paper that was about—yes, you guessed it—ethics! The professor uses SafeAssign, an online plagiarism detector, for all assignments, yet the student still chose to submit a friend’s paper. Wolverton (2016) found that “helpful” friends lending papers to roommates aren’t the only players in the online cheating game, but that several companies have been established to assume students’ identities and take a class for them, often guaranteeing results. The growth of online education and the growing use of learning management systems (LMS) across all delivery modalities carries with it the potential for tremendous growth in the online cheating industry.
At my institution, each class is provided with a course shell, whether it is delivered face-to-face, as a hybrid, or fully online. I require all weekly assignments and research papers to be submitted through the LMS. Students also take weekly chapter quizzes in the LMS and, in the hybrid and online classes, exams are administered online as well. With so much coursework being completed through the LMS rather than in the classroom, unethical behavior that goes undetected is a very real possibility. My greatest concern in the past had been plagiarism, but like Bates (Laureate Education, 2013d) I often found it easy to spot plagiarism based on a shift in writing style or familiarity with the material being “cut-and-pasted,” especially if it was lifted from course readings or resources. Plagiarism detection programs, such as SafeAssign, TurnItIn, and Grammarly provide one means of ensuring against passing off someone else’s work as one’s own, however, they can’t detect whether original work is that of the student or an imposter. Garza Mitchell (2009) noted that there continues to exist a pervasive distrust in online learning. Students offering to take online classes or complete online work for other students, and companies selling cheating services poses yet another threat to the validity of the online learning environment.
The sustainability of LMS technology is institution driven. Bates (Laureate Education, 2013d) noted that although there are cloud-based LMS options, institutions must fund and maintain technology that is implemented. Much like brick and mortar facilities require ongoing upkeep after they are built, technology requires an initial investment, followed by maintenance and updates or upgrades. Institutions may choose to license a basic version of an LMS, customize it, or add additional features, such as TurnItIn. One of the concerns many institutions are facing now is declining enrollment, which in turn results in declining revenues. Updates to technology, as well as technology support may be restricted by lack of funding.
As we move into the third decade of online learning, it is safe to say that learning management systems are here to stay. More and more faculty are teaching online and online enrollments continue to grow. Cheating happens in all classroom environments, but the anonymity of the online environment makes it easier to hire an imposter to take a class. Until technology to detect such imposters is readily available, we as instructors need to be aware that it is happening and use incidents of cheating and plagiarism as teaching opportunities and continue to promote ethical behavior.
Garza Mitchell, R. L. (2009). Ethics in an online environment. New Directions for Community Colleges, 2009(148), 63-70. doi:10.1002/cc.387
Laureate Education (Producer). (2013d). Sustainability and ethical considerations [Video file]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu
Wolverton, B. (2016). Professors set up fake class to study online cheating. Chronicle of Higher Education, 62(17), A17.