Guest Post – Ethical Practices in Online Education

Today we have a guest post by Sarah Scrafford (see below) discussing some ethical issues surrounding online study and offering a few possible solutions.  As most contributors and readers of this blog are online/external students this post highlights some issues that touch us all.  As always comments are open and I urge you to add your opinions.

Ethical Practices in Online Education

Students and cheating have been intertwined from time immemorial – whether it’s the fear of exams or the fear of failing or just the thrill of pulling wool over the teacher’s eyes, a student who wants to take the shortcut to success will somehow find a way. With the advent of the Internet, cheating has been taken to a whole new level. Graduate students in the United Kingdom are going so far as to “outsource” their coursework and assignments to well-educated professionals in India and Romania for a few pounds.

Classrooms with teachers present offer a psychological disadvantage to students tempted to cheat but afraid of getting caught, but for those who study online, this threat is non-existent. So the question of ethics raises its ugly head higher in the world of online learning than in traditional classrooms. Online cheating can be minimized by making it difficult for students to rely on other sources or people for help in taking assessments or exams in the following ways:

  • Increasing student-teacher interaction; regular emails and chat sessions will make sure that the student stays in touch with the instructor who will in turn be able to evaluate his capability level.
  • Each student should be given an id and password and log in to take an assessment. The password could be changed often to prevent students from passing it on to their colleagues.
  • Assessments that are more frequent and test progress more often limit cheating to some extent. Students are forced to keep pace with the curriculum rather than look for ways to cheat.
  • Tasks that require collaboration with fellow students could be included as part of the assessment. Cheating on this kind of test is difficult.
  • Random question generators are useful in churning out different sets of questions for each student, thus making it difficult for them to cheat.
  • Open book assessments where the reference material is provided make cheating void.
  • And most important of all, students must be taught that it’s not ok to cheat just because they are behind a faceless computer that apparently cannot catch them red-handed or any other way. Because some may mistakenly believe that what they’re doing does not construe “cheating”, it’s vital that instructors make sure that their students are well informed on what’s acceptable and what’s not before they commence the course. Tell them about copyright issues and plagiarism laws and make sure they understand that just because information is freely available on the Internet, it does not imply that they are free to use it without obtaining permission from and citing the source.

By-line: Sarah Scrafford is an industry critic, as well as a regular contributor on the subject of university of phoenix. She invites your questions, comments and freelancing job inquiries at her email address: sarah.scrafford25@gmail.com.

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4 Responses to “Guest Post – Ethical Practices in Online Education”


  1. 1 Brad July 16, 2008 at 6:36 pm

    Hi Sarah,
    I don’t disagree with any of the potential solutions you have offered here. I wonder if I might take the liberty of being controversial? I would be interested to see what sorts of responses you and others might have.
    1. Online educators could provide their students with biometric devices, such as fingerprint recognition technology. This would negate the need for secure passwords, and make cheating in online exams much more difficult. Not impossible though, I admit.
    2. Students could be required to register their computer/s with their educational institution. Permission of cookies and logging software would be mandatory. Again, this does not stop a person from using another computer by stealth, so it is not a perfect solution.

    Looking forward to seeing your thoughts on the matter. How difficult should cheating be made?

  2. 2 Simon July 16, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    Brad, I disagree with both of your points.

    1. wouldn’t work (ethical issues aside). The technology just isn’t available and limits many of the benefits of online study.

    I often participate in Blackboard tutorials via a mobile device, and I completed a Blackboard assessment item two weeks ago using the same device. There’s no fingerprint scanner available for it.

    My primary notebook runs linux (isn’t supported by any online provider that I use) and while there is some software that the online provider could potentially use, I can’t see them doing that especially if they can’t even support the operating systems students use (and the browsers too). My secondary notebook, however, runs BSD and I’m pretty certain that no online provider will provide the software for that!

    Also, what would stop you sitting next to someone who knows more than you? Fingerprints can be ‘gotten around’ too.

    As an aside, this really bugs me, telling students which software they can and can’t use.

    2. The technology isn’t there either Brad and I doubt it would really work anyway. As I mentioned above, you could be sitting with someone who knows the answers already. Also, if you were using an I.P address or ‘secure’ cookies I could just use my file server as a proxy, ssh into it and x-forward Firefox to a remote client.

    The best solution I can see is to, where available, have all tests invigilated. Also, make sure all assessment submissions include a signed cover sheet with a legally binding statement of authorship. If it can’t be signed because it is being electronically submitted then have a legally binding electronic contract, not hard to do.

    As for essays, well that doesn’t just apply to external/online students; any student could have his or her essay written by someone else.

  3. 3 Brad July 24, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    Good points Simon, and I can’t think of any reasonable argument against the claim that the technology isn’t capable of being implemented. Even if I was to suggest that the technology can be implemented at some time in the future (which it may), it could still be defeated by those with the will. I hope I pointed clearly enough, in my original post, to my reservations.

    Having said that, I am curious about where that leaves the debate.

    If the technology can’t make it absolutely impossible to cheat, the last bastion is the psychological domain. Invigilated exams and legally binding contracts are currently implemented, and those methods have failed sufficiently to allow this discussion to take place.

    So, I am still puzzled. How difficult should we make it for a student to cheat? Does intrusive technology have a positive psychological effect? Or does it simply breed methods of cheating that are increasingly difficult to trace?

    Maybe the examination process should be developed in such a way that cheating is made simple, and equally simple to detect.

  4. 4 Simon August 11, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    “Maybe the examination process should be developed in such a way that cheating is made simple, and equally simple to detect.”

    Or even restructuring the entire system and requirement for examination, at least for undergraduate and coursework degrees. I’m much more of the opinion that tutorial participation should be much more heavily weighted than it currently is. A course I’m taking at present on Justice and Political Philosophy is assessed, basically, through two papers. Both papers can be on the same topic. This means that if I want I can write on Rawls’s difference principle, for example, and not even read any of the other material while still passing with top marks.

    Were tutorial participation weighted quite heavily then I would need to read the material for each week and discuss it with other students and the teachers. Not only, in my opinion, would I gain a better understanding of the material but I would engage with all of it rather than just what I decided to do.


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