Cheating the Learning Management System? Ethics in the Online Environment

SafeAssignMy 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

Wolverton, B. (2016). Professors set up fake class to study online cheating. Chronicle of Higher Education, 62(17), A17.


About ProfMoniK

History professor at Arizona Western College and lecturer at Imperial Valley College and San Diego State University-Imperial Valley Campus.
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5 Responses to Cheating the Learning Management System? Ethics in the Online Environment

  1. Thach-Vu Ho says:

    Last semester I had two students turned in two printed copies of a study problem set. The only different between those two papers were the name on the paper. I gave both papers a zero. They complained to me that they did not know that this was wrong since I told the class that they could work together in a group of two or three. I was very upset. They brought the matter to the department chair. The chair told me to give them a second chance since it was only a homework assignment. I did eventually.
    I’m glad you brought up this issue because it is a common practice that we often observe in students today. Some faculty in my department often shared that millennials do not want to find the answer. They only want the answer to be given to them ASAP. As educators working with millennials, we need to use the inquiry-based approach to teaching the millennial generation (Barnes, Marateo, & Ferris, 2007). This approach teaches students to observe, ask, and explore for the answer to a problem. Through this process, students learn to be independent and not rely on people to provide the answer.

    Barnes, K., Marateo, R. C., & Ferris, S. P. (2007). Teaching and learning with the net generation. Innovate: Journal of Online Education, 3(4), 1.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ProfMoniK says:

    You make a great point…if the students work in groups and come up with a solution, should we require them to produce several original responses? Or one assignment with everyone’s name on it?


  3. ritchiemayes says:

    Hi Monika

    I really like your discussion about ethics in the online environment; especially the point made about cheating related to LMS. I have had instances where some students had asked me to submit assignments for them. That addresses the point about teacher’s ability to recognize a change in the student’s writing style. I have never heard of SafeAssign for addressing issues of plagiarism. Mozgovoy, Kakkonen, and Cosma (2010) insistence that plagiarism is an academic offense and not a legal offense, subject to institutional rules and regulations could lessen student’s perceptions about the severity of cheating. Perhaps cheating can be best dealt with by having students submit assignments through their personal email accounts. The approach would not decrease fraud to zero. However, one caveat is, a vast majority of students are protective of their personal email account, which could contribute to reduced fraud. The teacher having a digital record is another plus for submission by personal email. If a student has concerns about teacher access to their personal email regarding privacy issues, tec support could help by installing temporary access protocols for the course management system.


    Mozgovoy, M., Kakkonen, T., & Cosma, G. (2010). Automatic student plagiarism detection: Future perspectives. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 43(4), 511-531. doi:10.2190/EC.43.4.e


    • ProfMoniK says:

      SafeAssign is a tool in blackboard that is similar to TurnItIn. Personally, I haven’t found it to be very useful because many of the flags in the originality report are not relevant. For example, in a short paper (500-750 words) it will often show 25% similarity simply due to students using the same sources. It draws from papers submitted in the institutional database, as well as other online sources, which had led some instructors to questions whether or not SafeAssign owns the intellectual property rights to documents that have been submitted. This, however, is false. The documents simply become part of the database. I’ll post an example of what a SafeAssign report looks like.
      The email idea is great in theory, however it would be difficult to manage. Last semester had over 300 students and required multiple papers/writing assignment from each. Requiring them to submit assignments through Blackboard helps me manage my workload and there are grading tools–with or without enabling SafeAssign.


  4. Susan says:

    Hi, Monica,
    This semester I have turned to our institution’s LMS, D2L, or other technology such as Padlet, to collect all assignments. I like the paperless aspect. I also find that this semesters’ students have turned in work more timely than last semesters’ students who did not use D2L In fact, the printer problem has disappeared! Halfway through the semester I started to put quizzes online. Since they are low-stakes prep for the next day’s lesson, I am not (at least, yet) concerned about copying or unauthorized helping. The bigger problem at this point is whether or not I set the quizzes up correctly concerning restrictions and implementation. My students have been very patient with my mistakes, fortunately.


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