Integrity office looks for solution to online cheating

When students taking online courses turn in assignments, professors often are left to guess about who is really submitting the work – a potential hole in the University’s efforts to curb cheating, the academic integrity chief said.

GW does not have safeguards in place to prevent online cheating and such cases make up a small portion of academic integrity violations, but as online offerings increase and the stakes rise, administrators are laying out a plan to prevent the behavior before it spreads, director of the Office of Academic Integrity Tim Terpstra said.

This semester, Terpstra’s office already has ruled on a handful of cases involveing students away from D.C. in online courses, making him think that the University isn’t catching enough of these students and that cases are underreported. Of the 145 academic integrity violations last year, about 5 percent came from online courses.

“I thought to myself, ‘Jeez, how do we know who’s taking care of this?’” Terpstra said, adding, “In the online realm, it’s just that much easier for [cheating] to happen.”

He said he has considered ideas like requiring students who take online courses – mostly graduate students – to take academic integrity seminars on campus, and adding training for professors to catch plagiarism. Terpstra also suggested adapting technology that would measure student keystroke patterns to confirm their identities, but he said because the technology isn’t polished, it would likely be years before those tools could be used.

“It’s one of my goals to come up with something to say, ‘Here’s what we do now for online courses.’ It’s not going to be perfect at this point, but it’s a lot better than looking the other way,” Terpstra said, adding that he wanted GW to be ahead of the curve on dealing with the mounting issue of academic integrity online.

The call for a preventative strategy comes after a proliferation of online academic classes and programs, which enable the University to slide in more tuition dollars under the city-regulated enrollment cap that limits the number of students enrolled on the Foggy Bottom Campus.

Administrators have touted online programs’ capability of reaching students across the world.

“I see it as another area of higher education where we’re going to have to deliver on this. We’re going to have to do something to ensure the integrity of the product,” Terpstra said.

Sheryl Elliott, who teaches several online tourism studies courses, said she has not run into academic integrity issues in her classes. She said her program’s on-campus components help curtail potential violations.

“The on-campus residencies are also the opportunity to go over policies on academic integrity. This would tend to prevent the situation at Rochville University where a dog was ostensibly awarded an MBA,” she said, referring to the unaccredited online university.

Another professor teaching an online course, Blaine Parrish, said he’s never found a student violating the academic integrity code in his courses because he relies on critical thinking assignments instead of multiple choice tests.

He added that by “individualizing the assignments,” students are less tempted to cheat.

The potential for cheating in online programs has come under a spotlight with the rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Students in non-credit courses offered by Coursera reported dozens of plagiarism cases in August, pushing online learning companies to find a solution.

Professors can also ensure their online courses’ academic integrity through more video chats and threaded discussions, Teresa Fishman, director of the International Institute for Academic Integrity, said.

She said various universities and programs use a range of techniques to fight cheating and plagiarism, from identity verification systems to in-person proctored exams, so there’s not one accepted method yet.

“Teachers need to understand that this is a problem and take a combination of steps so that the students are given the right credit. We don’t want online courses to be devalued, because the opportunities are expanding,” she said.

Cory Weinberg contributed to this report.

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