Posts Tagged With: cheating

Online Courses and The Problem That No-One Is Talking About

There are two kinds of online courses: those which are taught, and those which are facilitated. The distinction does not apply to the task of interacting with students. I’ve been both “teacher” and “facilitator,” and it’s exactly the same job from that perspective. The difference is one of autonomy, and it is a big difference.

The Gwenna Moss Centre is about to run another offering of their Introduction to Teaching Online course. Although I am a co-facilitator for this course, I would describe it as a course which is taught rather than facilitated. My co-co-facilitator and I discuss the course as it is running, and make adjustments on the fly when necessary. We take note of what worked and what didn’t, look at participants’ evaluations, and then modify the course as necessary for the next offering. Not only do we have the autonomy to make the necessary changes, it is expected that we will.

In Intro to Teaching Online, we assume that the participants will also be able to teach their online courses- that they will make pedagogical and logistical choices to respond to their students’ needs, and to make the course run as smoothly as possible. Also, that they will have the ability to revise as necessary and try new things. That’s how you teach an online course.

When you facilitate an online course, while you might take on the task of assisting students and grading their papers, what you can do beyond that is tightly restricted by a delivery model over which you have very little control. How little control will vary, but most likely it will be difficult or impossible to make substantive changes to what is taught, or how it is taught. Even if you designed the course in the first place, that “you” and facilitator you are completely different people as far as control over the course goes, and designer you lost any input as soon as the design contract was up.

If you are lucky enough to be able to request changes, the process is rather like having completed a painting, then being told you aren’t allowed to touch it anymore. If you want something to change, you must fill out a form describing in detail where the paint should go and how to move the brush. Someone more qualified than you will make the change. They might send a note back to you saying that they plan to improve your painting of a cow by adding spots. You must then explain at length that it is in fact a dog, and should not have spots. When the painting is finally modified, the dog is the wrong shade of brown. You decide it is best to not request modifications to your paintings in future.

Why does this matter? I don’t care how good you are- you never get a course exactly right the first time. If there aren’t any outright problems, then it soon becomes apparent where improvements can be made. Facilitator you gets to see the problems or areas for improvement, but must be content with grading papers and answering questions. If facilitator you is like facilitator me, this will drive you nuts. If facilitator you is subject to the same kinds of course evaluations as someone who can teach their course, and make it the best it can be, then this is not only unfair, but professionally dangerous.

While course quality is affected by this- especially if no-one sees a need to consult with facilitator you about how the course is going, or there are no mechanisms for facilitator you to communicate issues and be taken seriously- there is a bigger problem: the very integrity of the course.

At one time distance education was mostly intended to serve those who could not go to a brick-and-mortar institution for one reason or another. Maybe they had a family or a full-time job and couldn’t leave to go to school. Maybe they just couldn’t afford to move. Now things are different. While I don’t have any hard numbers, from what I can tell, at least 70% of my students are already taking classes at a brick-and-mortar school. They take an online class because they can fit it into their schedule better than one on campus, or it isn’t offered on campus at a time they need it, or they’re trying to get ahead/ complete their degrees over the summer.

What this means for the big picture is that students are far more likely to communicate with each other about the course than in the past. It might be two students who take the course together, or it could be someone who took it previously sharing information with someone currently enrolled. In the case that is causing me problems right now, a substantial number of students from one department at one school take the online course to fill a requirement. This is a facilitated course, so perhaps you can guess where this is going.

The students talk to each other. Some of it might be innocent enough, but some of it involves passing on assignments that I’ve graded to the next group of students who take the course. The course has not been updated substantively in some time, so the same assignments and exams still apply.

The problem has become ridiculous of late, with students submitting near-perfect assignments, all exactly alike plus or minus a few careless errors, and within record time. They get things right that no-one ever gets right. Clearly they are working together, but they are also referring to older assignments. I know this for certain for a few reasons: First, the correct answer will frequently appear after incomplete or even nonsensical work. They submit solutions with the answer that would have resulted if a typo, long since removed, was still in the question. They also plagiarize my comments from old assignments, sometimes reproducing them verbatim.

This course has a must-pass stipulation on the final exam. Normally that would be some comfort, because students who haven’t learned anything on the assignments would fail the exams. I’ve seen students with 95%, 99%, and 100% on assignments unable to break 20% on the final. (The exam isn’t that hard.) But over the past few months it has become apparent that the content of the exam has been shared. If not an actual copy, then a very good description of what it contains is in circulation. Exam grades have gone up, and students are regularly answering questions correctly which were rarely answered correctly in the past.

Ideally, if so many students who know each other are taking the course, the assignments should change frequently. In our hyper-connected world, it is almost certain that this kind of communication between students will happen. I even know of a homework-sharing website that has some of the solutions posted. The problem is that in order to change this, someone has to keep on top of the course full-time, and have the autonomy to make the necessary changes. The main consideration should not be the logistics of altering course materials. There’s no excuse for that when the relevant materials are or can be delivered online, and everyone and their dog knows how to upload a file to an LMS.

Nevertheless, the issue is that facilitators cannot be empowered in this way without disrupting the underlying structure of course delivery. Even more problematic is a culture amongst those who do run things- those who are not subject-matter experts but who handle the day-to-day operations- which views facilitators as incompetent, and unable to handle this responsibility. Not long ago I was handed an in-house guide to designing distance education courses. It warned readers at the outset that most faculty would be uncooperative and not understand how a distance education course should run. I felt ill, the way you would feel if you overheard your co-workers complaining about how useless you were. As I recycle that book I will contemplate with irony the damage this attitude has caused to distance education, and wonder if maybe I should take a chance and start the dog-washing business I’ve been thinking about.

There are many reasons to disempower facilitators, not the least of which is the cost savings from having them as casual workers instead of full-time ones. So here’s where I’m going to get in trouble for this post (if I haven’t already): if your concern is the bottom line, what happens when the ease with which students can cheat in your course makes other schools, employers, professional certification organizations, etc., decide that credit for your course is no longer meaningful? Even if cheating is less of a risk, what if word gets around that the course is hopelessly outdated or has problems? You don’t get enrollment, that’s what. And the people who communicate this aren’t going to be disgruntled facilitators. I’m the least of your worries. You need to worry about the students themselves who joke openly about cheating, and how little can be done about it, or who are discovered to lack skills or to have learning that is outdated.

There is a fundamental disconnect between what schools view as the appropriate way to structure a distance education program, and what actually works on the ground, when you’re expecting learning to happen. One involves online teaching and the other does not. There is a cultural gulf between those who have the power to do something about it, and those who can only look on in frustration. There are a lot of dogs to wash, but with most of them you have to spell out B-A-T-H rather than say the word, or they run off. A waterproof apron is useful, but not foolproof. You’ll need lots of towels.

Categories: Assessment, Challenges, Distance education and e-learning, Learning technologies, The business of education | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is plagiarism funny?

Generally I would say no, but I’ve tried to make an exception with a new video project.

A recent onslaught of assignments highlighted the futility (yet again) of what amounts to grading the textbook. My brain started churning out cartoons about the ridiculous ways students attempt to skirt the requirement of having to answer in their own words. Jeff Foxworthy’sYou might be a redneck if…” came to mind, and my productivity screeched to a halt: “It might not be in your own words if…” (Does that make Jeff Foxworthy my muse?)

The point was to get students thinking about plagiarism without taking a “thou shalt not” approach. I plan to build additional resources, including a video and/or handout with tips on how to answer in one’s own words. I like to point out that the textbook is one way to say something, but not the only way, and not necessarily the best way. And it isn’t about some pedantic exercise in avoiding a specific set of words- it’s about turning words on a page into knowledge… and that doesn’t happen unless you think about what those words mean.

This project is shorter than my last project, which could make the difference between students watching it and not. Another difference is that it consists of text, music, and my own drawings… so no fifteen takes required to get a voice-over without stumbling or stuttering. The drawings were the fun part. While I have at some pont generated drawings and paintings that look like actual objects and people in the real world, doing so quickly and consistently is another matter. I came up with scribble people after searching for examples of line figures that others have drawn, and then doing my best to create something else. At one time I would have opted for stick figures, but after discovering Randall Munroe’s brilliant webcomic, xkcd… well, you wouldn’t try to out-drip Jackson Pollock, now would you?

In the process of making this video, I learned some things that might come in handy for anyone trying a similar project.


If you’ve made the slides, then you know way more about them than a first-time viewer will, so you’re probably not the best judge of how fast the slides should move along. What worked great was having someone else advance through the slides using the “Rehearse” mode under the “Slideshow” tab in PowerPoint. This records the duration over which each slide is viewed. Not only did I get an idea of how much time viewers might need, it became very clear which slides would benefit from a redesign. Set the intervals for transitions between slides, and run it with “Use Timings” selected. Then it is a simple matter of starting and ending a screen recording.


I am not musically astute. If you ask me about Country and Western music released between 1950 and 1969, or Tom Waits, or Leonard Cohen, I might be able to help you. Lyrics to “The Battle of New Orleans?” Got you covered. Otherwise, you’d best ask my husband, who has a much larger musical vocabulary, and likes to ask me “Who sings this?” when he knows full well I can’t answer. But I needed music, so what to do?

Where to get it

I learned that there is a lot of royalty-free music online, and a subset of that is free royalty-free music. There is the Free Music Archive, which, amongst other things, has recordings from Edison cylinders! How cool is that?! I also found Kevin MacLeod’s website, where he offers his music under a Creative Commons license. His music is searchable by genre as well as by “feel” (bright, bouncy, driving, mysterious, etc.). Each song comes with an excellent description, suitable for the musically challenged, which makes it clear what an appropriate context would be for that song.

How to use it

Odds are, your song and your video won’t be the same length. If the song is longer than your video, it is easy enough to fade out the volume at a convenient spot. If the song is shorter, it’s more difficult to maintain continuity. Some songs come with versions that are suitable for looping, or in versions of different lengths. You can buy a little extra time by delaying the start of the song slightly, and fading in the volume, and then fading out the volume at the end. You could perform audio surgery and create a Frankensong… but if amputating musical body parts and stitching them back together again isn’t for you, then throwing continuity out the window might be the better choice. I didn’t know any of these things when I started, and it took a lot of experimenting to get something I could live with. Hopefully villagers with pitchforks and torches won’t be a problem.

Categories: Challenges, Learning technologies | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Repeated class, repeated assignments?

When I grade assignments I tend to add a lot of comments to explain errors and address misconceptions. If I ever deduct points from a student’s assignment without explaining why (often in some detail), it’s simply because I’ve forgotten.

The situation I’m facing now is that my good intentions have come back to bite me. What happens when a student whose assignments I’ve so carefully annotated has to repeat the course? Ideally, the student would use my comments to supplement his or her understanding, and then do a better job of answering the question in his or her own words. There may be only one correct answer, but there is often more than one way to explain why it is correct.

That’s how I’d like it to work, but that isn’t what I’ve got. What I’ve got is Rosalie. (Rosalie is not the student’s real name, and may or may not be consistent with the student’s gender.) Last term was a continuous struggle with Rosalie over plagiarism. She copied passages from the textbook and internet verbatim, even after I tried to explain that this was not acceptable and allowed her to revise her work instead of giving her a zero outright. Unfortunately, Rosalie failed the final exam with a sufficiently low grade that she also failed the class. This was the last course Rosalie needed to graduate, but her final grade was so low that it was well past any help from discretionary wiggle room.

So Rosalie is back in my class this term, and as you may have guessed, Rosalie had no qualms about plagiarizing my comments from last term’s assignment. It appears she started from the Word document that I graded and then proceeded to swap out the odd word for its synonym, or change a verb tense. Sometimes the synonym did not make sense in the context of the sentence. Sometimes she added her own comments that directly contradicted a previous sentence which she copied from my comments. In some places she forgot to delete more conversational parts of my comments along the lines of “As you pointed out earlier in your answer, …”

I started by giving her the benefit of the doubt, but the problem soon became too obvious to ignore. She had not made a good-faith effort to answer the questions in her own words, or even to improve her understanding of the course material. Toward the end she ceased altogether any attempt to modify my earlier comments, other than changing the text colour from red to black.

I don’t know what to make of this behavior. Did she forget the ongoing discussion about plagiarism that we had last term? Did she not understand it? Did she think I wouldn’t notice? Did she feel entitled?

What I’ve done in this case is to review her assignments from last term and look for questions where her grade could benefit from revision, but where I had not expounded at length on the answer. I will let her resubmit those questions but use last term’s grades for the others. This means she will not earn a passing grade on one of the assignments. I’m not sure how she will take this, because I suspect that she has no expectation of passing the final exam. I think she intended to pad her grade with high scores on assignments, and she hopes to scrape by that way. I can’t fathom why she thought this would be the best way to do it.

I don’t know if there is an official policy to cover this sort of thing. I certainly haven’t come across any guidelines. In a different context the assignments could be varied from one offering of the course to the next, but in this case the course is intended to run several years before revisions are authorized. Even if the assignments could be changed up each time, it might not be desirable to do so. The assignment questions were chosen to focus students’ attention on key concepts. These are central ideas that need to be addressed each and every time the course is offered, so creating new assignments would involve finding multiple unique pathways to get students to exactly the same place. How many ways can you ask what colour a buttercup is? Limiting overlap between assignments could undermine what the assignments were intended to do in the first place.

So how do I proceed? Should repeating students be given the benefit of the doubt each time, and then be dealt with if and when they behave unethically? Where would the line be drawn, and how could it be applied consistently? Should limits be fixed at the outset on what can be resubmitted? What about cases when the time limit for document retention has run out and I don’t have my original comments to reference? What if the student failed all of the assignments the first time around and I annotated the heck out of everything in an effort to be helpful? (Sigh. It would be so much easier if they all just passed the course.)

Even if I find a way to manage students who are repeating the course, I realize that not all students cheat in ways that are conveniently foreseeable. If the ones who should know they are likely to get caught still cheat, what is the extent of the problem with students who fly beneath my radar?

I have decided to do two things that I really don’t want to do. One is to go back to having a “must pass” stipulation on the final exam. This means that even if a student has full points on all of his or her assignments, failing the final exam would mean failing the class. I stopped doing this because there are students who work very hard throughout the term and are just not good exam writers… but I don’t see any way around it.

The other thing I’m going to do is limit my comments. If an answer is missing information I will pose a question that prompts the student to look up the information, but not supply it myself. If an answer is incorrect, I will indicate where the problem is, but not go much further than that. If there is a misconception, I will address it briefly and refer the student to additional reading. This doesn’t mean I won’t answer questions to the best of my ability if students ask them. It just means that they will have to ask.  Unfortunately, they don’t do that very often.

Categories: Challenges | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Anti-plagiarism au naturel

Spider web with water dropletsThe process of screening students’ papers for plagiarized text is disheartening and mind-numbingly boring.  Inevitably I find a non-trivial number of cases despite efforts to inform students about academic integrity.  For those of you who have done your level best to teach your students about plagiarism, and are completely baffled by their continued transgressions, I recommend the following as therapeutic reading:  Baggaley and Spencer (2005), “The mind of the plagiarist,” Learning, Media and Technology, 30-1, pp. 55-62.

After the last round of plagiarism patrol, I began to wonder if a tool existed that would automate the process of comparing my students’ answers to their textbook.  This, I found, is territory well trodden.  There are many tools, free and otherwise, which can be used to check for plagiarism.  Most of these would not help me because they search freely available online content, and that excludes my textbook.  One tool that might help is Turnitin.  This company maintains a repository that includes proprietary content, but whether it contains my textbook in particular is difficult to determine.

A good overview of the debate regarding Turnitin can be found in a March 2004 University Affairs article entitled “The cheat checker”.  Turnitin gained prominence when students raised philosophical objections to its use.  One complaint was that Turnitin adds students’ papers to its repository when they are checked.  Students argued that they shouldn’t be forced to give up their intellectual property to a for-profit company.  What isn’t mentioned is that students’ papers don’t have to be added to Turnitin’s repository to use the service, and if they have been added, they can be removed.  I wasn’t able to find this information at, but it is a fairly common detail in documentation prepared by schools that subscribe to Turnitin, such as the University of Regina.

The other objection was also the explanation offered by the University of Saskatchewan as to why it opted not to subscribe.  (We will have to take the word of the University Affairs article on this one, because I couldn’t find a relevant policy statement by the U of S.)

“Gordon Barnhart, university secretary at the University of Saskatchewan, says his institution “wrestled with this issue” of anti-plagiarism software a couple of years ago. In the end, he says, “we very consciously decided not to go that route” because of the reverse onus it places on students.”

Léo Charbonneau, “The cheat checker,” University Affairs, 15 March 2004

This is the argument that by checking students’ papers for plagiarism using Turnitin, we automatically assume they are guilty of cheating.  If this is true, then presumption of guilt is not limited to the use of Turnitin.  When I grade papers, I am always comparing students’ answers to my own mental database of what the textbook says, and looking for similarities.  The only difference is that Turnitin does it more efficiently and accurately than I can… if not as cheaply.

It is unlikely that I will catch all instances of plagiarism that come across my desk, and the fact that some cheaters will prosper diminishes the value of academic credentials for everyone.  Some would put a finer point on it, though:

“Whatever the causes [of plagiarism], the presenters agreed that teachers who do not act to create a culture of honesty in their classrooms, and who do not enforce ethical standards, lack integrity as much as their students who cheat and plagiarize.”

“One step ahead of the palm pilots: Creating a culture of academic honesty at the U of S,” Bridges, January 2003

Without the right tools, the degree to which I can enforce ethical standards depends an awful lot on how well my spidey sense is working that day.

Categories: Challenges | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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