Easy A's may be even easier to score these days, with the growing popularity of online courses. Tech-savvy students are finding ways to cheat that let them ace online courses with minimal effort, in ways that are difficult to detect.
Take Bob Smith, a student at a public university in the United States. This past semester, he spent just 25 to 30 minutes each week on an online science course, the time it took him to take the weekly test. He never read the online materials for the course and never cracked open a textbook. He learned almost nothing. He got an A.
His secret was to cheat, and he's proud of the method he came up with—though he asked that his real name and college not be used, because he doesn't want to get caught. It involved four friends and a shared Google Doc, an online word-processing file that all five of them could read and add to at the same time during the test.
More on his method in a minute. You've probably already heard of plenty of clever ways students cheat, and this might simply add one more to the list. But the issue of online cheating may rise in prominence, as more and more institutions embrace online courses, and as reformers try new systems of educational badges, certifying skills and abilities learned online. The promise of such systems is that education can be delivered cheaply and conveniently online. Yet as access improves, so will the number of people gaming the system, unless courses are designed carefully.
This prediction has not escaped many of those leading new online efforts, or researchers who specialize in testing. As students find new ways to cheat, course designers are anticipating them and devising new ways to catch folks like Mr. Smith.
In the case of that student, the professor in the course had tried to prevent cheating by using a testing system that pulled questions at random from a bank of possibilities. The online tests could be taken anywhere and were open-book, but students had only a short window each week in which to take them, which was not long enough for most people to look up the answers on the fly. As the students proceeded, they were told whether each answer was right or wrong.
Mr. Smith figured out that the actual number of possible questions in the test bank was pretty small. If he and his friends got together to take the test jointly, they could paste the questions they saw into the shared Google Doc, along with the right or wrong answers. The schemers would go through the test quickly, one at a time, logging their work as they went. The first student often did poorly, since he had never seen the material before, though he would search an online version of the textbook on Google Books for relevant keywords to make informed guesses. The next student did significantly better, thanks to the cheat sheet, and subsequent test-takers upped their scores even further. They took turns going first. Students in the course were allowed to take each test twice, with the two results averaged into a final score.
"So the grades are bouncing back and forth, but we're all guaranteed an A in the end," Mr. Smith told me. "We're playing the system, and we're playing the system pretty well."
He is a first-generation college student who says he works hard, and honestly, in the rest of his courses, which are held in-person rather than online. But he is juggling a job and classes, and he wanted to find a way to add an easy A to his transcript each semester.
Although the syllabus clearly forbids academic dishonesty, Mr. Smith argues that the university has put so little into the security of the course that it can't be very serious about whether the online students are learning anything. Hundreds of students took the course with him, and he never communicated with the professor directly. It all felt sterile, impersonal, he told me. "If they didn't think students would do this, then they didn't think it through."
A professor familiar with the course, who also asked not to be named, said that it is not unique in this regard, and that other students probably cheat in online introductory courses as well. To them, the courses are just hoops to jump through to get a credential, and the students are happy to pay the tuition, learn little, and add an A.
"This is the gamification of education, and students are winning," the professor told me.
Of course, plenty of students cheat in introductory courses taught the old-fashioned way as well. John Sener, a consultant who has long worked in online learning, says the incident involving Mr. Smith sounds similar to students' sharing of old tests or bringing in cheat sheets. "There is no shortage of weak assessments," he says.
He cautions against dismissing online courses based on inevitable examples of poor class design: "If there are weaknesses in the system, students will find them and try to game it."
In some cases, the answer is simply designing tests that aren't multiple-choice. But even when professors assign papers, students can use the Internet to order custom-written assignments. Take the example of the Shadow Scholar, who described in a Chronicle article how he made more than $60,000 a year writing term papers for students around the country.
Part of the answer may be fighting technology with more technology, designing new ways to catch cheaters.
Countering the Cheaters
When John Fontaine first heard about the Shadow Scholar, who was helping students cheat on assignments, he grew angry. Mr. Fontaine works for Blackboard, and his job is to think up new services and products for the education-software company. His official title is senior director of technology evangelism.
"I was offended," he says. "I thought, I'm going to get that guy." So he started a research project to do just that.
Blackboard's learning-management software features a service that checks papers for signs of plagiarism, and thousands of professors around the country use it to scan papers when they are turned in.
Mr. Fontaine began to wonder whether authors write in unique ways that amount to a kind of fingerprint. If so, he might be able to spot which papers were written by the Shadow Scholar or other writers-for-hire, even if they didn't plagiarize other work directly.
"People tend to use the same words over and over again, and people have the same vocabulary," he says. "I've been working on classifiers that take documents and score them and build what I call a document fingerprint." The system could establish a document fingerprint for each student when they turn in their first assignments, and notice if future papers differ in style in suspicious ways.
Mr. Fontaine's work is simply research at this point, he emphasizes, and he has not used any actual student papers submitted to the company's system. He would have to get permission from professors and students before doing that kind of live test.
In fact, he's not sure whether the idea will ever work well enough to add it as a Blackboard feature.
Mr. Fontaine is not the only one doing such research. Scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say they are looking for new ways to verify the identity of students online as well.
Anant Agarwal is head of MIT's Open Learning Enterprise, which coordinates the university's MITx project to offer free courses online and give students a chance to earn certificates. It's a leading force in the movement to offer free courses online.
One challenge leaders face is verifying that online students are who they say they are.
A method under consideration at MIT would analyze each user's typing style to help verify identity, Mr. Agarwal told me in a recent interview. Such electronic fingerprinting could be combined with face-recognition software to ensure accuracy, he says. Since most laptops now have Webcams built in, future online students might have to smile for the camera to sign on.
Some colleges already require identity-verification techniques that seem out of a movie. They're using products such as the Securexam Remote Proctor, which scans fingerprints and captures a 360-degree view around students, and Kryterion's Webassessor, which lets human proctors watch students remotely on Web cameras and listen to their keystrokes.
Researchers who study testing are also working on the problem of cheating. Last month more than 100 such researchers met at the University of Kansas at the Conference on Statistical Detection of Potential Test Fraud.
One message from the event's organizers was that groups that offer standardized tests, companies developing anticheating software, and researchers need to join forces and share their work. "Historically this kind of research has been a bit of a black box," says Neal Kingston, an associate professor of education at the university and director of its Center for Educational Testing Evaluation. "It's important that the research community improve perhaps as quickly as the cheating community is improving."
There seems to be growing interest in such sharing, says James Wollack, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "If you go on the Web and look, it's pretty clear that the people trying to game the system are learning from each other," he says. "Unless the testing industry also pools its resources, we're always going to be playing this game of catch-up."
A revolution in education thanks to online courses could be in store, as Thomas L. Friedman recently predicted. But significant challenges remain, not least among them preventing Mr. Smith from fraudulently claiming an education that he didn't get.