Fighting cyber cheaters in online classes

BY NICOLE KARLIS | JUNE 29, 2009 7:21 AM

Local professors who teach online courses breathed a collective sigh of relief when they heard their students would not have to submit to more demanding regulations than on-campus students.

Earlier this summer, federal lawmakers decided secure log-ins and passwords or proctored exams are enough to prevent cheating. That leaves the professors to ponder another challenge.

“What you worry more about is students keeping up,” said David Hensley, a UI clinical professor at the Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.

But he is still wary of the possibility of dishonesty. He designed the course with a way to ensure the individual is the one doing the assignments. All assignments and quizzes are posted on Iowa Course Online, which requires a username and password.

When it comes to exams, Hensley’s students go a local library to take a proctored test — with a proctor certified by the UI Division of Continuing Education. The student must provide the name and address of the proctor to the professor.

Jerry Moon, a UI professor of communication sciences and disorders, also requires his online students to take proctored exams.

“I feel comfortable with the process,” he said. “I haven’t had any problems, and I did the course last spring.”

Classrooms and lecture halls are equally vulnerable to cheating, Moon said, especially because he does not check student IDs at the door when they arrive.

Last summer, members of Congress considered adding a paragraph in the Higher Education Act that would have required universities to use costly software for monitoring online students via webcams and fingerprint scans.

Those concerned with students’ privacy rejoiced when lawmakers decided against that course of action.

There are more traditional and arguably cheaper ways to catch cheaters. Laurie Croft, a program associate in the Belin-Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, recalls one instance when she found two students in online classes plagiarizing.

Both were trying to say “screeching halt” but turned in assignments with identical expressions, “scratching haunt.”

“[It was] a little too off for a coincidence,” she wrote in an e-mail.

For the most part, instructors echoed Hensley’s thoughts — thwarting potential cheaters is not as important as making sure the students in online classes keep up with their work — especially given limited opportunity to ask questions.

“You don’t have the same degree of interaction that you would have in a lecture hall or classroom,” Moon said. “If you don’t get it, you can’t just throw your hand up right away.”

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