Online Blogucation

Plagiarism and the Online Class

In nearly ten years of teaching in higher education, I have seen my share of plagiarism from students (and, disappointingly, sometimes from published scholars, but that’s another blog). I’ve had tearful confessions, angry denials, pleas of ignorance or lack of intent, and assertions of innocence and coincidence. One student will forever stick out in my mind: during a midterm essay exam for which students were required to use their laptops, he, an 18 year-old freshman, downloaded an essay on Aeschylus’ Oresteia (three plays we had not read in class) so philosophically advanced that Homi Bhabha need not blush to have written it. He was expelled; when I submitted his paper with the original he’d copied to the citizenship office, I was told it was his third strike and he was out. (All I could think about was the money his parents had wasted on that first year of college; at the time, I was teaching at a private university where tuition, living expenses, and books together cost roughly $35,000 per year.) In the very first class I ever taught, one student plagiarized Friedrich Nietzche; in what I consider an almost humorous coup-de-grace, this past January, two students plagiarized the essay my university now requires all students to write at the beginning of the quarter explaining what plagiarism means to them.

Interestingly, all of the cases of plagiarism over the past ten years that stand out in my mind were committed by students in on-ground courses. To be sure, there have been a handful of students in my online courses who’ve plagiarized. However, in my experience, cases of online plagiarism have been much less common than cases in my on-campus courses. Is my experience unique? According to recent research, no. Between 1999 and the mid-2000s, a number of studies predicting that the rise in online teaching would witness a corresponding rise in plagiarism appeared. Beginning with George and Carlson (1999), research suggested that online learning environments, precisely because of the distance between teacher and student, were prone to higher rates of plagiarism among students. Such studies pointed to the fact that online students would have more opportunity to cheat as well as to the likelihood that they would have more technological know-how, knowledge they could use to discover new and better ways to cheat. More recently, however, studies have shown that students in online classes are in fact less likely to plagiarize or cheat than their traditional, on-ground counterparts. In a recent study, “Point, Click, and Cheat: Frequency and Type of Academic Dishonesty in the Virtual Classroom,” Donna Stuber-McEwen, Phillip Wiseley, and Susan Hoggatt (2009) argue that for a variety of reasons, cheating in online classrooms may be substantially less frequent than it is in on-ground courses. Similarly, Grijalva et al. (2003) suggests that online courses are less prone to problems of cheating and plagiarism than are traditional, on-ground courses. Why?

One theory is that a significant amount of plagiarism is prompted by panic: the student plagiarizes because he or she has waited too long to begin or is struggling with the assignment and has waited too long to ask for help. Because of the anytime, anywhere nature of distance learning, online students may be less susceptible to problems of this sort (Grijalva et al., 2003). Another is that the premise upon which studies arguing online students would be more likely to cheat—to wit, that they were more at ease with and knowledgeable about the Internet and its resources than their traditional on-campus counterparts—is shaky. Students who take online courses may be more at ease with technology than their on-ground counterparts, but this ease doesn’t by itself produce a willingness to cheat. Nor is it necessarily a safe assumption that students who choose to take on-campus courses are not tech-savvy and thus somehow less able to find ways to plagiarize if they’re so inclined. A third theory is that many online courses are structured to reduce opportunities for plagiarism and cheating: because of the early research suggesting online cheating was going to pose a huge problem, many institutions and instructors built their online courses with this idea uppermost in their minds and thus reduced the incidence of cheating from the start (Grijalva et al., 2003). This theory supposes that a potential problem created by new technology and the increase in online educational programs—cheating and plagiarism—can be at least partly resolved by the same technology and online programs.

Interestingly, the research supporting this third theory—that online courses are less prone to cheating and plagiarism because they’ve been built specifically to avoid it—has at its foundation a number of best practices that we on the Academic Training & Consulting team at Pearson eCollege suggest online instructors incorporate into their courses. When we conduct course reviews for our Educational Partners, these strategies are ones we recommend as pedagogically effective—but not because they deter students from cheating. Rather, each of these strategies has another utility: it enriches the quality of instruction and helps students to achieve the objectives of the course. Consider the following strategies:

  • Use the syllabus to articulate clear and specific course policies with respect to plagiarism and cheating. Course policies in general are an essential component of any syllabus, whether it’s for an online or on-ground class. Your syllabus should provide a clear articulation of (ideally) the institution’s definition and policies pertaining to plagiarism as well as your own. These policies should contain clear statements about the consequences for violation. Such policies serve two important functions: first, by being open and clear about what plagiarism is, how it’s defined, and what the consequences for committing it are, you will help to prevent it; second, should punitive action become necessary, it will be fair because it was explained at the outset of the course.
  • Establish an instructor presence in the course early. Introduce yourself to the students; they want to know who you are and that you are really there. Use first-person pronouns, provide a few biographical tidbits about yourself (i.e., that your daughter had a dance recital over the weekend, or that you and your dog went hiking—the kind of statements you might make in passing during an on-campus course). Establishing such a presence not only increases students’ comfort level in an online course—they know they’re not being taught by a computer—but if, as George and Carlson suggest, distance between educator and student produces an environment conducive to cheating, creating a connection between yourself and the students will minimize that risk.
  • Maintain your instructor presence. Respond to students in the discussion boards throughout the semester, and provide feedback on written assignments. You needn’t overwhelm or dominate the discussions, but you should facilitate those discussions with a few comments or questions. Similarly, if students are submitting written work and hearing nothing from you about its merit, they will conclude, logically, that you either do not care what they submit or that you do not value their work. Either conclusion could potentially lead to cheating.
  • Use a mixture of assessment formats. Don’t, in other words, rely exclusively on exams or quizzes. Such assessment formats are much more difficult to monitor for cheating than written assignments, such as essays or research papers. Rather, as we would recommend as a best practice, combine quizzes, self-assessments, exam, graded discussions, informal or response papers (perhaps posted using the Journal tool), and essays. Such a mixture of assessment types does more than make it difficult for a student to cheat his or her way to an A in your course; it also provides you with a variety of ways to interact with the student, thus assuring the student that you are present and interested. It also allows you to become familiar with the student’s “voice” and style as well as giving you a means of comparing expressions of the student’s knowledge of course material (i.e., does the student seem to ace all the exams or quizzes but falters in the discussions and papers?). In addition, it helps those students who may not perform well in one type of assessment format to demonstrate their grasp of the material—some students may freeze during exams, and others may find written expression particularly difficult. If you include both, students have more opportunities to succeed in the course.

It is a truism in teaching that if students want to cheat, they will find a way to do so. It’s inevitable that some students, no matter how much effort we put into prevention and deterrence, will plagiarize a paper. However, a well-structured course can help deter students from cheating while also improving their overall learning experience.

Jennifer Golightly, Ph.D.

Academic Trainer & Consultant

Works Cited

George, J., & Carlson, J. 1999. Group support systems and deceptive communication. Proceedings of the 32nd Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. (accessed August 13, 2010).

Grijalva, T., Kerkvliet, J., & Nowell, C. 2003. Academic honesty in online courses. (accessed August 12, 2010).

Stuber-McEwen, Donna, Phillip Wiseley, and Susan Hoggatt. 2009. Point, click, and cheat: Frequency and type of academic dishonesty in the virtual classroom. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 12 (3). (accessed August 10, 2010).