How do you stop online students cheating?

WATCH: Online university courses are growing rapidly, but how can they be sure who is really answering the questions?

Imagine taking a university exam in your own home, under the watchful eye of a webcam or with software profiling your keystrokes or your syntax to see whether it really is you answering the questions.

Online university courses have become the Next Big Thing for higher education, particularly in the United States, where millions of students have signed up for courses from some of the most upmarket universities.

With spiralling costs and student loan debts crossing the trillion dollar barrier this year, the online university has been seen as a way of reaching many more people for much less money.

But a major stumbling block has been how such digital courses are assessed.

When students are at home how do you know whether they are cheating? How do you know the identity of the person answering the questions?

For the online courses to gain value, they need a credible way of assessing students and an important part of that is preventing fraud.

Home exams

The Open University in the UK has been a pioneer of distance learning.

"It's a common problem across the sector - how do you know that the individual taking the exam is the right person?" says Peter Taylor, chair of the Open University's academic conduct group.

An important attraction of online courses is that students can study where and when they want - and he says the university is looking at ways of letting people take exams at home.

Anant Agarwal Anant Agarwal, head of edX, is offering real exam centres for online students

"We're looking at whether we can do online examinations, so the student doesn't have to come in to a hall, they just need to be sitting in front of their computer at a particular time when the exam is released to their computer," says Prof Taylor.

"Their computer would be locked down so that it can't use other materials. If you've got an appropriate webcam - that can provide you with effective invigilation."

"I've not yet seen systems which I'm confident about at the moment - but I don't think it will be too long before these problems are resolved."

Online identity

This still raises the question about how you know who is sitting the exam.

"There are various ways you can identify a person," says Prof Taylor.

Start Quote

There is no doubt that this is the 'web moment' for higher education and a battle is shaping up for growing student numbers on global courses online”

End Quote Martin Bean Open University vice chancellor

"One system we looked at meant that you had to type in a particular phrase - and the rate and the particular way you type is effectively a signature of the individual."

These are not distant-horizon ideas - Prof Taylor says he would expect such technology to be in place within the next five years.

He also says that there is no reason to think more people would necessarily cheat online.

"Let's face it, in a large examination hall, each individual student isn't going to be closely watched. The idea of people bringing notes up their sleeves remains a problem."

EdX, an online university project set up earlier this year by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, wants to make more use of the exam hall rather than less.

Students taking edX online courses will be able to sit their final exams in an international network of test centres, run by Pearson Vue.

These will be formally supervised on-screen exams, using the edX website, and those who pass will receive a "proctored certificate", showing it has been achieved in an invigilated setting.

Bricks and mortar boards

"This is a very important step," says edX's first president, Anant Agarwal. "Because people have been concerned that learners had no way of showing that they had done the work themselves, if they were applying for a job or for higher education."

With enough randomly generated questions, he says, it would be possible to grade the work of tens of thousands of students at different times around the world.

Harvard in autumn Harvard is among the new wave of top universities offering courses online

Such online testing techniques are going to have an impact on the traditional university course too, he says.

"Online education is like a rising tide, it's going to lift all boats," says Prof Agarwal.

Students really like the instant feedback of online testing, he says. And interactive, multimedia online lectures make the old-style lectures look less effective.

But this volume of testing depends on automated marking - and will mean a limit on the range of subjects and type of questions that can be examined.

A computer is going to struggle to mark an essay on irony.

Industrial scale marking

That's the challenge for another of the most significant online course providers, Coursera, set up by Stanford academics and backed by Silicon Valley investors.

Start Quote

Online education is like a rising tide, it's going to lift all boats”

End Quote Anant Agarwal edX president

It has attracted students remarkably quickly - 1.6 million have signed up in the first year, taking courses from more than 30 top universities.

When the University of London's international section joined last month, 9,000 students signed up in the first 24 hours.

But how can such large numbers of candidates be reliably marked?

Coursera's co-founder Daphne Koller says trying to find a way to assess so many students is "part of the learning process".

She says automatic marking can generate a score or a grade, but students want human feedback. And there isn't any technology that can judge whether an essay has really connected with a question.

The Open University's Prof Taylor says their own experiments have shown that any software for assessing free-text answers requires a large amount of human intervention.

"Decisions about the quality of work are made by academics. There has to be a human brain in there somewhere," he says.

Coursera has been experimenting with peer assessment, where students grade each others' work, following guidelines set by the teacher.

This allows for the marking capacity to grow with the class size - but it also depends on the reliability of fellow students.

These online courses are also being discussed online - and blogs from students refer to disagreements over marking.

For instance, there are disputes among this global student body over British or American spellings.

Honour code

This brings the debate back to an old fashioned and low-tech form of preventing cheating.

The "honour code" - or should that be "honor code" - is an ethical approach, based on a promise to maintain academic honesty.

And there is research suggesting it really works and institutions with such a code have a lower level of cheating.

Iris recognition Keystroke measurements and iris recognition could verify a student's identity

The need to establish a reliable system to stop online cheating is fast becoming a mainstream concern.

The latest recruit to edX, the University of Texas, says it wants to charge tuition fees for online courses that will count towards degrees - which will mean the same level of rigour in testing as traditional courses.

Martin Bean, vice chancellor of the Open University, said: "There is no doubt that this is the 'web moment' for higher education and a battle is shaping up for growing student numbers on global courses online, with some able to grow large numbers of students very quickly.

"However this is a battle which will be about brands and the market ability of the providers but also, crucially, about quality of teaching and credibility."

Will online universities become an important way to study? Will online courses have the same value as traditional degrees? A few of your comments are published here.

The distinction between Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences on the one hand and Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths on the other will become starker because of online assessment. Although the distinction isn't absolute, it's broadly true that in the former subjects there are few questions to which the answers can easily be categorized as right or wrong (and allocated to these categories by a computer) and in the latter there are many such questions. For this reason, the two domains of intellectual work will pull away from one another regarding teaching and learning just as they already have done in other areas, such as research and the dissemination of knowledge. Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences still rely primarily on the printed monograph for dissemination of research outcomes, while Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths use the journal article (commonly circulated digitally). In the former subjects, the academics care about ideas from long ago, while in the latter the academics care little for anything written more than a few years ago. This has considerable impact on institutions such as libraries, which in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences are places where research is undertaken, while in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths libraries are places where learning takes place. This all amounts to a fundamental rift in the idea of what a university is for, and it's part of an even wider rift in our culture's capacity to record the results of human thinking. The latest technologies are exceptionally good at enabling instant communication of the latest thinking--such as what someone on the ground in Aleppo thinks of the war there--and exceptionally poor at enabling long-term preservation of old thinking. (As the British Museum curators are apt to point out, it's much easier to preserve an Egyptian papyrus from 3,000 years ago than to preserve a floppy disk from 30 years ago.)

Prof Gabriel Egan, De Montfort University

There is no way to be absolutely certain without seeing the person face to face. Many international students work hard to find ways to beat the system - we see it all the time. The more enterprising then sell their skills. No wonder the sign up was so high for London. Just because someone is sitting in front of a computer with iris recognition technology doesn't stop them reading from a piece of paper stuck on the wall or another person dictating from afar. Both institutions and students are heading for a fall because theses courses will soon become discredited, (some distance qualifications are not accepted in the Gulf for example) and students will end up with a worthless certificate.....

Jill Cook, Swansea

I teach commencing humanities students at one of Australia's new universities. There is a good story to tell here. The majority of these students apply to study with comparatively low tertiary admission scores and commence their degree courses quite unprepared for higher level learning. Many of these students are immigrants or the children of immigrants and come from homes where languages other than English are spoken most of the time. Around 22 per cent of these students come from the bottom SES quartile (compared to 16 per cent across all Australian universities). This is the changing face of higher education in Australia. Federal government policy is supporting a rapid increase in participation by students from low-SES backgrounds who are typically the 'first in the family' to attempt higher education. While attrition rates are quite high at the first year level (around 25 per cent of this humanities cohort don't continue on to the second year although many return later to try again) the majority do persist and go on to complete their degree studies. Most report high levels of satisfaction with their course and with their academic performance. The commencing humanities students are supported with foundation subjects to build academic literacy and other pedagogical strategies designed to build confidence and 'learner identity'. While some use is made of 'e-learning' or 'blended learning' approaches - welcomed by digitally literate younger students in particular - the most crucial and intensive learning in those early weeks and months on campus occurs in small face-to-face tutorials rather than in large lecture rooms or virtual forums. Students report that challenging classroom conversations - about difficult scholarly texts and controversial social issues - extend their thinking and their confidence. While Coursera and other online offerings might be playing an increasingly useful role in fueling students' passion to learn, and providing authoritative course content, I doubt that such offerin gs will easily replace the intensity and effectiveness of those Socratic situations where students and their teachers have difficult embodied conversations.

Dr Andrew Funston, Melbourne, Australia

I am currently studying the online course on edX. My take on the subject is simple, I am doing this course to increase my knowledge and go up the professional ladder. If i was to cheat around the tests, my knowledge would be incomplete and I will be found wanting during the interviews and hence cant get the job I want. This could be the sucess of hounour-code. These courses will enable people to learn new skills and bring them into the workplace.

Sukh Bhullar, London

As a mother of a toddler with a full-time job, it is almost impossible for me to study any other way than online. I am halfway through a three-year online MSc, and the academic standards are as rigorous as those for on-site learners, but with the added complexity of limited interaction with other students and lecturers. I'm sure there are students who will cheat online, just as there are in-person learners who plagarise. Generally though, most of us studying online are more committed because we'd made the choice of this learning method because we have to.

Carolyn Bowick, Edinburgh

I am currently studying on two Harvard/MIT edX computer science/programming courses and they are very good. I have completed a number of traditional degree courses during my life and I find this course delivery system to be less stressful and more productive than typical lecture hall/seminar/tutorial teaching. It is a style of learning which is particularly well adapted to older people as it can be done at home in one's own time and at zero cost. It is, however, a solitary experience and, as such, may not be right for younger people who are looking for a more fun/social experience at university. I have signed up to the 'honor code' and if you are only interested in learning, this works fine. I can see, however, that if your sole purpose is to obtain a diploma, then it would be very easy to cheat. On a technical degree course, I can't really see how just having the diploma would help you, as you would soon be found out in the work place if you didn't know your stuff ... This is the future of education in my opinion and I think it's wonderful.

Michael O'Sullivan, Maidstone

Before worrying about online students, first schools and universities round the world need to stop offline students buying their assignments and handing them in as their own work. "TurnItIn" software may stop plagiarism but it doesn't stop uniquely written essays and assignments being bought and submitted. Schools and universities currently have no mechanism to stop it, meaning most qualifications are not believable.


We are seeing the start of the education/learning revolution. The internet and access to technology can mean that anyone can learn anything, anywhere. We are a generation away from the end of the formal 'testing' of knowledge and understanding and moving towards a true 'learning portfolio' that will record your capabilities. This transition will reduce the possibility of cheating. You can cheat a high stakes final exam, but who could maintain this for smaller, focused events that record your grasp of something specific? A 2:1 in a subject is only of value to an Employer if the parts of that subject applicable to the job are the parts you did well in.

Paul Campbell, Liverpool

Is there an absolute guarantee that the person sitting an exam in a campus university is who they claim to be? The problem is not confined to distance learning institutions. There have been stories of students paid [or otherwise encouraged] to sit exams under another's name for as long as there have been universities. Likewise the allegations of teachers in "certain schools" completing examinable coursework [notably in fine art] for their pupils.

Tony Seaton, Nuneaton

I've just started studying for my BA in English Language and Literature with The Open University. I would think that anyone that signs up to do a course online wouldn't cheat as it means you're spending thousands of pounds to not learn. I think to throw yourself into a course you need to be quite dedicated. I'm a mother with a full-time job and this degree is going to take me six years to complete. I have no intention of cheating as I WANT to learn. Seems a waste of time and money to the individual if they cheat as all they will gain is some letters, which will prove useless if they go into a job claiming to be an expert when they are not, not the actual knowledge.

Kasi Brewer, Fareham

I'm doing a Coursera Humanities course, simply because I want to learn more about our world. I don't sit for the exams. There must be millions like me, and the cost of supplying the videos of actual undergrad lectures must be minimal compared with the publicity that Princeton gets.

Keith, Morecambe

I work at a small public library. We regularly have to proctor exams for students taking online couses. The exams are mailed directly to the library and an exam time is set. The student uses our program room to take the test. Then we seal up and mail it back to the university. A photo ID check is required by most schools so that we know the person is who he/she says they are. I believe on-line degrees with the proper checks are a valid way of gaining an eduction. But I do also believe that the student can miss out on the valuable interaction with other students and faculty in a traditional education setting.

Marguerite, Boyceville, WI USA

I am halfway through my first Coursera course and have signed up for 3 more. The course delivery, in the form of video lectures in this case, is excellent. I do find though, with 50,000 on the course, the discussion forums difficult to find and follow a sustainable 'thread' though that could be down to pratice. The biggest cat amongst these virtual pigeons is however the peer evaluation. More discussion has been generated about this than anything else, from the spelling issue to word counts and grammar. What there isn't much of in the forum is a analysis of the rubric itself, that is, the expected content. (Interestingly, Penn State, who provide this course, have lowered the grade for a certificate to 50%, presumably to counter wide interpretation of the peer grading system.) I have little interest in some of the frankly petty issues raised by participants because I am doing the course for fun - it's challenging enough and free, unlike other providers like Oxford's continuing education courses (which do carry CATs points). I don't need aanother qualfication and I think the certificate will be sufficient to support my cv in terms of professional development inasmuch as it demonstrates willingness and commitment to learning and a level of engagement in academic discussion. Although I do see this learning environment as having a future for those wanting access to higher education, it cannot in its current form replace traditionaldegrees. The culture of the participants has to evolve as much as the systems for assessment and the attitudes towards recognition.

Alison Griffin, Stratford upon Avon

I am Adjunct Professor of English at SUNY/Old Westbury in New York and have taught traditional lecture courses as well as World Literature On-line courses. The bottom line is that someone (though, not everyone) is going to cheat, to try to beat the system and to forge ahead on the latest path of dishonesty digital or otherwise. If academics stays true to its procedures and penalties - students MUST in online situations receive before the first on-line test is taken, a code of conduct firmly in place with the penalties for cheating outlined. Sussing out the how and what's of this problem are large and workable. Which is why you have all those smart professors walking around universities in the first place whose job it is is (on some level) to try to outwit students in the first place in order to teach them effectively. I agree that it is tough for a computer to grade a paper on irony. But I still contend that human ingenuity, creativity and a classroom filled with other people is not necessarily going to disappear-is now an alternative/transition form. The online cheating issue is a problem of keeping people on their toes while navigating a sedentary, less active, less community centered learning model. People are less likely to cheat if they feel like they are going to be caught - in online situation I don't think people take that as seriously and that issue is at the heart of crafting a solution. The profession needs to take up its lamps and start on a familiar task in a world no less filled with hypocrites, liars , thieves and cheaters than it was in Diogenes time

Professor Jennifer C. Person, SUNY/Old Westbury

I've just completed the second week of an edX course on biostatistics offered by Harvard University (and thus branded HarvardX). I'd like to stress upon the word "completed" because enrolling in any of these courses is ridiculously simple. I believe only 5% of the students who enrolled in the first edX course actually completed it. If you enroll in one of these MOOCs (massive open online courses) and find the material difficult, there's little help you can seek, unless you can find something useful in the hundreds of messages (often chaotic) posted by thousands of students. If you fall behind or drop out, no one's going to care. It's all up to you. The course material, no doubt, is world class, and so is the way the courses have been produced - the intuitive learning interface, videos, etc. It's incredible that these courses are being offered free of cost, but the commitment and effort needed to complete them may probably be more than that needed for classroom courses, where one's voice might be heard

Ravi Murugesan, Mumbai, India

I am an English teacher at the King Saud university in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Here online courses are not acceptable by my employer, due to the reasons mentioned in the article. And, having seen how easy it is to cheat, I can clearly understand why. During 4 years as a teacher in China I witnessed several people undertake online degrees with prominent UK universities. All of whom openly cheated and enjoyed an easy passage to a Masters degree. It's so easy in places like China where cheating is part of educational culture. The people I'm talking about enjoyed the full support from the Dean and faculty of the university they worked at. Essays and research were freely exchanged enabling the students to progress with the minimum of effort. In conclusion, I deem that online degrees are worth no more than a forged degree certificate

Paul, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

I agree with Michael O'Sullivan. It isn't big news yet, but at some point soon the fact that top quality dissertations are being bought and handed in for totally undeserved high marks will hit the media. The number of essay writing services in the UK is escalating all the time. Basically, if you and your kids are honest they are likely to lose out to these legally protected cheats. The internet exams are just another nail in the coffin

Gary, Chesham

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