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Big Fat Online Education Myths – Students Cheat Like Weasels in Online Classes



An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about students cheating in those free online classes called MOOCs ignited a fireball of blogging last week about how online learning will, once again, be the ruination of all higher education.

Cheating in online classes, online education myths, photo of crib notes

The Chronicle article focused on anecdotal evidence that students enrolled in free massive online courses (MOOCs) are plagiarizing their essays in literature courses.   So what’s the problem with online learning this time?   It lacks credibility because it encourages people to cheat.     To which I say: Really?   A business blogger for Forbes immediately picked up the sensationalist torch from the Chronicle and wrote, Are They Learning or Cheating? Online Teaching’s Dilemma.”   Says this Forbes blogger:  


Plagiarized essays, however, are only part of the cheating-related issues that online education providers must guard against. In online science classes, there’s a risk that ambitious students may start the class several times, using dummy accounts so that they can gradually master multiple-choice quizzes. Such schemes would let them eventually take the class under their real name, with a strong prospect of a perfect or near-perfect score.  


Again: Really?   I have taken many tests for courses, both online and on-campus. Online, I’ve been subjected to a final exam proctoring process where I was required to take the exams in person at a local testing site, with a photo ID, under a watchful supervisory eye.   I was graduated from a residential liberal arts college Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude, and I can assure you no one, not once in all my years of residential learning, ever checked my I.D. when I sat down to take an exam.   Now which system was it again that encourages cheating?   But enough of my opinion. There’s real research on this matter.  


Belief is Not Reality – Online Education Myths on “Rampant” Cheating


Empirical studies show that cheating in college classes is neither unique to online learning nor more prevalent online than it is in the typical college classroom.   Research shows people believe cheating in online classes MUST be more common, but that belief is largely a myth. The idea that online learning corrupts one’s moral intellectual fiber is based more on prejudice — and perhaps the new media need to create a sensational blog post every 24 hours — than on any body of hard evidence.   One research study, for example, found that 32.1% of live-class and 32.7% of online-class students admitted to cheating within the last semester. That, folks, is not a significant difference.   Below is a summary of research findings related to cheating in online classes, copied verbatim from a journal paper titled “Cheating in the Digital Age: Do Students Cheat More in Online Courses?”  


With the advent of web-based assessments the opportunity to use illegitimate means to improve grades is a concern (Kennedy, K., Nowak, S., Raghuraman, R., Thomas, J. & Davis, S., 2000; Smith, Ferguson, & Caris, 2003). The perception that cheating occurs more often in on-line courses has been studied by King, Guyette, & Piotrowski (2009), in which they found that 73.8% of students surveyed felt that it was easier to cheat in an on-line class. The question remains however, do web-based assessments encourage a higher rate of student cheating than non-web-based assessments? There are some conflicting results among researchers who have studied this issue. A study by Grijalva and others (2006) found that there was no significant difference between cheating on regular paper assessments and web-based assessments. Grijalva and others’ (2006) study of 796 students enrolled in undergraduate online courses found that approximately 3% of students admitted to cheating, which was similar to findings for students in traditional courses. Nevertheless, a study by Lanier (2006) of 1,262 college students found that student cheating in on-line courses was significantly higher than in live classes. Another study, by Stuber-McEwen and others (2009) had a conflicting finding, in that students cheated less in on-line classes.  


Some studies suggest cheating may in fact be a worse problem in the face-to-face classroom than it is in distance learning. Research that there may be less cheating in online classes than on campus often cites the fact that online students tend to be older, more mature, and that online classes tend to use a technique called “authentic assessment.”   Authentic assessment, based on the idea that students should submit work that shows the integration of theory with personal experience, is one of the many gifts that online learning has given back to its campus peers. Authentic assessment, unlike traditional college theory papers, makes it extremely hard to fake or copy one’s homework.   It is a big fat online education myth that cheating and plagiarism are credibility issues “unique to online learning.” Cheating is certainly not unique to online courses. In fact, many of the assessment techniques pioneered to combat cheating in online classes are now helping to make traditional colleges more cheat-proof.   Cheating aside, there are real problems with massive open online courses (MOOCs) like Coursera’s. The biggest problem is that the majority of students who register for them NEVER complete them.   Is anyone really learning anything using MOOCs, or are they merely the current venture capital backed rock stars in the for-profit education craze?   I wish more people would blog about that.



About the Author: Vicky Phillips was cited in 2009 by US News & World Report as “for 20 years the leading consumer advocate for online college students.” In 1989 she designed America’s first online counseling center for distance learners on AOL. In 1998 she authored the first print guide to online graduate degrees – Best Distance Learning Graduate Schools put out by the Princeton Review. In 2001 she authored Never Too Late to Learn the Adult Student’s Guide to College.

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