Students, schools play cat and mouse with online cheating

Colleges look for innovative ways to stem distance learning cheating

AS COLLEGES OFFER more and more courses online, school officials are scrambling to come up with innovative ways to prevent cheating by students taking tests and other assessments remotely.

It’s often a game of cat and mouse. One undergraduate student at Northeastern University says he took an online marketing course from a professor who tried to thwart cheaters by requiring his students to use browsers that locked them on to the test-taking website.

“You couldn’t go to any other website,” says the student. “But what you could do is have a laptop or an iPad or a smartphone with Internet capability right next to you to look up stuff and no one would know.”

Another student who took online courses at Northeastern says he frequently cheated, often by staggering test-taking times with other students in the class so questions and answers could be shared.

“My thinking was that if everybody else is doing this, then I should be taking advantage of it as well,” he says. “I know that’s bad to do, but if a professor isn’t doing anything to prevent it and if everybody’s taking advantage of it, then it seems like I’m at a disadvantage for being honest.”

University officials say such rationalizations occur both in the classroom and online, but they are more commonplace online. “The danger of online education is that you and I don’t see each other,” says Boston University professor Jay Halfond. “And the more impersonal the relationship between student and professor is, the more the student will rationalize cheating.”

Trevor Harding, a professor at California Polytechnic State University who has researched student cheating in engineering, even has a term for it — “technological detachment phenomenon.”

Online students can cheat on their own or they can hire others to do their online work. Some even hire others to take the entire course for them. Websites, with names such as,,, and, offer to take online classes for students.  They do their best to make it seem as if cheating is a perfectly acceptable thing to do., for example, refers to its course-takers on its website as “tutors” and says hiring a tutor “is not ethically wrong as we merely help you achieve your objective. Throughout history, those who have put a premium on efficiency and expediency are the ones who have survived, taking on far greater foes and triumphing over them.” promises an “A” in the course 99 percent of the time. “When you’re in a serious time crunch or working full time, the last thing you want to do when you get home is deal with your online class work for a class you have no interest in. We get that,” the website says. “Your class will be on cruise control the moment you sign up with us.”

Students can similarly turn to Craigslist for class-takers. One person advertising on Craigslist offered to take an online history course for $750 (others offered to do it for as little as $200) and said he has taken online courses for students at both UMass and Boston University. Asked about confidentiality, the person says by email, “Don’t worry about it.  You’re safe with me.”

CommonWealth placed an ad on Craigslist offering to take online courses for students and received several responses, including one from an UMass Boston student looking for someone to take his online course in political science.

Schools are increasing their efforts to detect and deter online cheating, including giving different questions to test takers; not giving so many high-stakes exams; not giving tests at all; and using recognition technology — keystroke verification and fingerprint, facial, eye, and voice biometrics — to make certain that the person taking the test is actually the student who signed up for the online course.
Jeffrey Pokorak, a vice provost and a professor of law at Suffolk University, favors reducing the stress students feel when they have to take big tests that count for a large portion of their grade.

“We recommend to our faculty that instead of giving mid-terms and end-of-semester exams that they consider doing things like giving many mini-assessments, quizzes, and pop questions instead,” Pokorak says. “So you spread out the grade over a period of time.  Reducing the stress reduces the cheating.”
One of the ways Lesley University reduces online cheating is by not giving many tests.  “Most of our online courses don’t have exams,” says Heather Tillberg-Webb, associate provost of academic technology at the school.  “We have other ways that students demonstrate their learning such as with projects and robust discussion.”

Officials at the University of Massachusetts declined to say what they do to detect and deter online cheating, other than to say they use “best practices.”

Christopher Mallett, Northeastern’s vice president of online programs, says faculty are vigilant regarding cheating, but the school is nevertheless testing new methods to detect and deter the practice. He also said he thinks a small number of students attempt to engage in cheating at the school.

Some schools are trying to use technology to make sure students are not cheating. One of the things Halfond did when he was dean of BU’s Metropolitan Collegee — the university’s professional and continuing education school — was to help develop a remote proctoring system to watch students as they take their tests, which Boston University requires for many of its online graduate programs.

“The quid pro quo for students,” says Halfond, “is that it’s very convenient and if you do subject yourself to it, you’ll be in a fairer environment in which you’re not going to feel like you have to cheat because everyone else is cheating…. It’s really not that big a deal.  It’s not as Orwellian as it seems.”

BU hires an outside company to do the remote proctoring using a webcam and screen-sharing software for closed-book exams. “So both the students themselves and the rooms that they’re in are monitored closely,” says Eric Friedman, BU’s director of the office of distance education. The entire proctoring session is recorded.

At the beginning of each session, a student is required to show a government-issued picture ID to the proctor, who verifies the person is actually registered for the course. Students are also required to scan their webcam around the room in which they are taking the test before starting the test to reveal everything that’s there.

Rebecca Monachelli, a student at the State University of New York at Binghamton who has taken a number of online cources, says she feels the online proctoring is very intrusive.  “At the beginning, the monitor said something to me like, ‘I’m going to watch you throughout your exam.’ And I had to take my computer and scan the room to make sure that there was no information, no notebooks near me, no sheets of paper, no nothing.”  Monachelli also says she even had to hold a mirror up to her keyboard to show that she had nothing just below the webcam.

As a result of the extremely close surveillance, Monachelli says she was not at her best. “I don’t think that I did as well as I could have because of being watched like a hawk,” she says. “It was very, very nerve racking.”

Meet the Author
With cheating one’s way to an ‘A’ in an online course is  a bit too tempting — and often too easy — the measures schools are putting in place to block it seem understandable.  But even those in charge of trying to thwart would-be cheaters admit to feeling funny about it. Friedman of BU says the process smacks a bit of Big Brother.

“I find it a little bit strange that we are going into these people’s living rooms and bedrooms and watching them,” he says. “I’m not sure how I would feel about that.”