Is Cheating Easier in Online College?

Online college offers a lot of advantages — convenience, flexibility, the freedom to attend each of your classes in a completely different prefab living space at your local IKEA. You read about all of that in the pamphlet.

One thing you probably didn’t read about in the pamphlet? Cheating, and how easy it is to get away with it in online college.

We’re not saying that makes it OK. We’re not suggesting it’s a reason to go to online college. And we certainly don’t advise it.

We’re not even arguing that it happens more in online college than on campus. Research on this subject is inconclusive.

One thing not up for debate: the nature of online college makes cheating far easier for those inclined to it. Online colleges don’t usually advertise this, but it’s true. The spread of online college has made cheating harder to detect, which means college students get away with it more easily.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The heightened threat of cheating presents an opportunity for online schools to evolve, not just within the context of distance education, but in the broader scope of higher education. Online schools are pioneers in pedagogy, evaluation, and other key dimensions of education. Here, they have a chance to take pioneering steps in the deterrence of cheating.

We’ll take a closer look at this opportunity, but first …

My Shadowy Background

Long before I had the honor of writing to you, I had a different job. I helped students cheat for a living. I wrote papers that college and grad students handed in and claimed as their own. I worked for a few different online companies, and I made a pretty passable postgraduate living, even as America tumbled toward the Great Recession.

I retired from the job back in 2010 and moved on to less illicit pastures. Somehow, I got by without the euphoric titillation of contract cheating. (You can’t imagine the heady thrill of life as an academic outlaw.)

Anyway, I’m neither proud nor ashamed of the work I did. It’s not something I’d ever wish to do again. On the other hand, I learned a lot from those years as a student-for-hire. And thanks to the daily randomness of writing papers, I studied topics I wouldn’t have otherwise touched with a hazmat suit. Believe me, I know way more about accounting, airport administration, and Jeffery Dahmer than I ever wanted to. All were subjects I wrote on for paying customers.

But enough about me. This is about those paying customers, and how many come from online colleges. Online students are a key customer demographic in the essay business.

Some companies even actively target online students. One such site, the name and URL of which I will decline to promote here, offers “Great online custom writing paper services that can write papers for money on any topic may play a vital role in a life of modern students.”

You, dear friend — the bold explorer who has chosen to seek an education through the magic of the internet — are the “modern student” of which this essay mill speaks.

Obviously you get the point, but this particular essay mill’s web copy is kind of hilarious, so strictly for fun, here’s just a bit more:

“One day in the future, you shall remember this moment. You induced a decision to use our legit term paper writing service — a life-changing event that made your academic life. Overall, you will be grateful and secretly happy about an enormous amount of time you gained with our cheap services.”

Anyway, before you do “induce a decision” to buy a custom-written paper, note the web copy above reads as if written by a non-native English speaker. Enterprising Eastern European companies uniquely populate the online cheating biz. Believe me, the Russians hack more than just our elections.

I can also tell you that online college students were a big part of our customer base. In particular, asynchronous models of online education lend themselves to an absence of accountability. So too does the permeation of shady for-profit colleges and degree mills in the online education sector. These two factors make it exceptionally easy, and in some instances, highly appealing, for online students to cheat.

But Is Cheating More Widespread Online?

While a frequently asked question, the answer remains elusive. An oft-cited 2009 study from the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration found that online students are no more likely to cheat than their traditional counterparts, and that self-reporting tends to contradict prevailing assumptions. The expectation that online students are likelier to cheat doesn’t necessarily hold up to reality.

Using the Student Academic Dishonesty Survey, the study found “students enrolled in online classes were less likely to cheat than those enrolled in traditional, on-campus courses. Aiding and abetting was self-reported as the most frequently used method among students in both online and traditional classroom settings. Results suggest that the amount of academic misconduct among online students may not be as prevalent as believed.”

It is perhaps true that the individual proclivity to cheat is either present or not, that either a student is likely to indulge in this behavior or not, that the context doesn’t necessarily direct bear on this likelihood. That’s fine.

But it’s important that we don’t take too much comfort from what meager, self-reported findings do exist on academic dishonesty. In fact, as you dive deeper, the numbers become increasingly contradictory.

For instance, the Educational Testing Service Ad Council Campaign says 75%–98% of college students admit to having cheated in high school. A Kessler International survey of students in both online and on-campus college found that 86% admitted to cheating in school. Of those respondents, 54% felt it wasn’t a big deal. Some even argued it was a necessary step to remain competitive.

Of those respondents who admitted to cheating, 97% said they’d never been caught.

Those figures cast a long shadow over 35%, which is the scant number of surveyed college officials who believe a cheating problem exists. In other words, the problem is far more widespread than most administrators know or willingly admit.

As a 2015 article in The Atlantic points out:

“There are also far more potential customers/students online than on campus. And because taking classes online can be less expensive and more convenient than on-campus options, student interest is high. While higher-education enrollment has hit a plateau or even dipped in the past five years, participation in online college education continues to increase, up by more than 570,000 last year.”

I can’t empirically make the leap to argue that online cheating is therefore more widespread than it is in the traditional classroom. But I would suggest cheating is probably more widespread in online college than we realize, if for no other reason than the online sector’s fast growth within higher education.

Bottom line: cheating is widespread and commonplace throughout higher education, whether online or on-campus.

Easy A?

The bigger question is whether cheating online is harder to detect. On this point, we can answer unequivocally. The invisible student is a boon to schools that would rather pretend cheating doesn’t happen, especially difficult-to-detect forms of cheating.

My former profession was based entirely on one such subtle method of cheating. We produced completely original custom papers. This is a method of cheating that is unconsidered in the oft-cited Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration study from 2009. However, the Kessler International survey finds that 42% of respondents had purchased a custom-written paper online.

Despite nearly half of respondents conceding this, many educators are still unaware of custom paper services. When I wrote a 2010 expose for the Chronicle of Higher Education revealing some of the practices common to our business, I was met by no small amount of skepticism.

“It can’t happen here. Not in my class,” said any number of arrogant professors. Oh, but it can, and it does. And the refusal to believe it is one of the biggest obstacles to detection.

Regular face-to-face interaction helps though. When it comes to detecting custom-written essays, there is no substitute for a personal relationship. This creates a certain level of accountability, not to mention the healthy fear of getting caught. If you know you must interact with your classmates, your TA, or your professor regarding a topic, you risk revealing a gap between your knowledge and the knowledge represented in your custom-written work. This is a very real cheating deterrent (for some, though not all).

I have plenty of emails from former on-campus customers expressing fear about these very risks.

Online colleges that fail to produce a personal experience, instill no sense of accountability, and never create an opportunity for familiarity are especially vulnerable to cheating. While this fact doesn’t make online students more inclined to cheat, it does lead to a specific kind of cheating.

Remember my mention of airport administration? I wasn’t making that up. I took a complete online course on airport administration, including how to coordinate flight schedules, manage safety concerns, and address customer needs. I signed in using my customer’s username and password, I completed some courses through an online module, submitted some quizzes, and wrote a few essays. Wham, bam! I have all the online qualifications to be an air traffic controller — outside of the fact that I’m terrified of airplanes.

Anyway, I also completed an online course on behavior psychology, a dozen or so in business administration, a few on the principles of nursing, a disturbing number of modules in education, and even one dreadful semester on health insurance administration. But really, I took too many online courses to name.

I wrote all kinds of papers for on-campus students, up to and including graduate theses. But taking whole classes and courseloads for full semesters, or even for several years at a time … this was something I did only for online students. The remoteness of certain online educational experiences lent itself to this kind of cheating. And because there was no watchful eye, no level of personal engagement, nor any kind of familiarity, accountability, or loyalty between educator and student, what I was doing was impossible to detect.

Quality Matters

This is not to say that every online school is equally as vulnerable. The kernel of truth at the heart of this discussion is that few cottage industries share as symbiotic a relationship as do essay mills and shady for-profit schools.

While online college has become increasingly credible, and deservedly so, it has certainly endured its share of growing pains. Notably, even as rigorous, high-quality online colleges populate the landscape, they must share a space crawling with shady for-profit opportunists.

These shady for-profits are bread-and-butter for essay mills. By recruiting students with questionable academic abilities, then providing them limited instruction, scarce oversight, and little to no discussion on plagiarism rules or honor codes, these schools become a Petri dish for cheating.

As The Atlantic reports:

“A cynic could argue that a lack of enthusiasm to stop online identity fraud in education may be related to financial benefit. Online classes, degrees, and certifications are less costly to provide than traditional methods; a 2012 report by the Thomas B. Fordham institute estimated that colleges save more than 40 percent when they move classes online. Indeed, the cost savings are a key selling point of those encouraging a move from having students show up to simply asking them to log in.”

So even if online education doesn’t inherently make cheating more appealing, online education is vulnerable to certain models that do make it easier. The recent crackdown on shady for-profit schools is perhaps one of the most effective measures ever taken to reduce the earning power of essay mills.

But there’s more to it than that. The online colleges that have the best potential to rise above their vulnerabilities are those that employ progressive and innovative models of instruction, pedagogy, and evaluation.

Indeed, online schools that create more opportunities for face-to-face interaction, for personal familiarity, and for higher accountability — both for the educator and student — will tend inherently to discourage cheating, or render it more detectable to the human eye when it does occur. Not coincidentally, online schools that take these steps will almost invariably be of a higher academic caliber as well.

As a student, you have a right to know that the school you attend takes all steps to ensure a level virtual playing field. One of the best ways to do this is to seek out an online education that is of the highest merit. Those online schools that prize the credibility and quality of their programs also take steps to recognize and confront academic cheating — even in its most inconvenient and invisible forms.

To that end, check out this year’s ranking of the 50 Best Online Colleges & Universities 2019. These schools employ proven methods and innovative models to create experiences that remove the very imperatives underlying academic dishonesty.

If you’d like to learn more about how you, the student, can take steps to avoid accidental plagiarism or academic dishonesty, we recommend checking out a few of the notable resources below: