Two Western Carolina University faculty members and a graduate student recently conducted research into cheating in online courses, using a bit of deception themselves to see how effective those impostors hiding in the digital shadows actually are.
Funded by a grant from the Morrill Family Fund for Research in Education, Alvin Malesky, associate professor and head of the Psychology Department, enlisted the help of Robert Crow, faculty member and former instructional developer in Coulter Faculty Commons, and John Baley, a graduate student in clinical psychology at the time. They created a fake online course with the usual requirements, syllabus and assignments.
Baley then posed as an enrolled student and, using a pseudonym, solicited companies he found online to essentially take the class for him. Other classmates participated in the experiment, some of whom were “honest students” and some turning in plagiarized or equally bogus but unpaid work, with professors not knowing who the professionally-assisted student was.
Their research results are to be published this year in the journal College Teaching. Their experience already has been featured in a Chronicle of Higher Education article and is increasingly cited in ongoing conversations about the perils of online education.
“We weren’t sure what we would find,” Malesky said. “We didn’t know what quality of service would be provided, if the company would deliver on the promises made, or if an instructor would be able to easily detect and catch a student who wasn’t responsible for the assignment.”
The research was not an assault on the credibility of virtual classrooms or online education. Online offerings can be beneficial, he said, allowing a soldier deployed overseas, a single mother at home or working professionals to continue their educations or complete their degrees whatever their location or circumstance.
“This is not a knock on online courses, by any means,” Malesky said. “It was research into another aspect of academic dishonesty. Cheating is cheating, and it goes on, and not just online or in classrooms. We also wanted to see if these companies were preying upon desperate students.”
Advertised as tutorial services or study guides, such companies offer “assistance” for online course enrollees and often guarantee results. While ethical and academic codes were obviously broken, the question of legitimacy and legal boundaries remain. The UNC system has taken interest in the findings, which is expected to lead to further research, Malesky said.
In the end, the professors easily detected plagiarized work and caught several of the cheating students, while Baley’s pseudonym student successfully evaded detection.
Baley and his online helper got an “A.”