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Is Online Cheating Accelerating?

Grad student teams in my Design of Online Communities class handed in super qualitative studies of seven online sites this term.  Grading the papers, I couldn’t help notice that three of the seven sites were fundamentally wrestling with issues of student cheating online. On OpenStudy and StackOverflow, students regularly post their homework questions and wait for others to answer. Neither site is quite sure what to do about the problem.  Answering questions is essential to their mission. How do you distinguish between getting legitimate help and outsourcing your work?

A team of students from Korea studied a site called GoHackers, which Korean students use to help with test preparation for study-abroad tests like the GRE and the TOEFL. The electronic version of the tests generally reuse questions from a pool. If each test taker remembers one test question, together students can quickly build a comprehensive database.   One interview subject had posted a particularly thorough test guide online, and another student asked him for his autograph. Our student researchers explicitly asked site members whether they had any ethical or legal qualms about the test prep site, and no one they interviewed was concerned at all. 

Of course it’s a coincidence that three of seven papers touched on this theme this term. And cheating is not a new phenomenon–far from it. But what is in fact new is the ease by which it can be accomplished.  It’s not simply a little easier–it’s a lot easier, and that is leading to a different magnitude and type of issue.

if there’s a silver lining, it’s that this trend may challenge us teachers to rethink our practices–to rethink what makes a good assignment or test.  To rethink what the purposes  of “homework” and “test’ are anyway and how those goals can better be met, perhaps with more authentic and contextual activities. And to pay more attention to ethics education and meta-cognitive awareness in our students: making sure we make it clear to students why they are doing what they are doing for school.

  1. March 30, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    My first-year composition students don’t take exams, and I’ve solved the problem of students turning in essays found on the internet by designing assignments too odd to be standardized. However, as a way to have students begin rough drafts, I often assign several short-answer essay questions that will require some research to supplement their thinking.

    Occasionally, I research these homework questions alongside my students. (It helps me know what to suggest when they say they are struggling.) A few times I’ve found my assignment verbatim on similar sites. When I forward screen shots to the culprits, my surprised students defend themselves by claiming such behavior is simply a shortcut through the research, and that it should not be judged as cheating because they will reword the information before using it.

    Perhaps in an age of information mash-up, the definitions of cheating don’t make sense to students? I do agree that ethics and awareness are topics that cannot be left to the syllabus alone, but I’m not sure what example(s) would really drive home the urgency to think for oneself.

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