The New (and Old) News about Cheating for Distance Educators


Scott L. Howell
Brigham Young University
scott.howell@byu.edu

Don Sorensen
Caveon Test Security
don.sorensen@caveon.com

Holly Rose Tippets
Brigham Young University
holly.tippetts@byu.edu

Abstract

Those in distance education are faced with a formidable challenge to ensure the identity of test takers and integrity of exam results, especially since students are physically removed from the classroom and distributed across the globe. This news digest will provide distance educators not only with a better understanding and awareness of issues surrounding cheating but also suggest solutions that might be adopted to help mitigate cheating in their programs. While technologies, including “braindump” Web sites and cell phones, are associated with the more common cheating behaviors today, the problem of cheating will always beleaguer distance educators; it is their responsibility to stay current on latest developments in the field of academic dishonesty, employ fitting interventions to mitigate cheating, and do everything possible to preserve the integrity of distance education.

Introduction

While many distance educators know they need to protect the integrity of their programs and prevent cheating whenever possible, few, if any, want to spend the necessary time or resources required to prevent and detect cheating. Confronting cheaters and spending resources on deterrents, detection, and discipline is not why distance educators go to work each day. However, this responsibility to stay current on old and new ways of cheating is receiving more attention at professional conferences as accreditation and legislative bodies codify expectations for distance education. For the past 10 years regional accrediting bodies have required programs to “ensure the integrity of student work,” (Accreditation Handbook, 2003, p. 47) and on August 14, 2008  Congress reauthorized the Higher Education Act with this provision: “an institution that offers distance education to have processes through which the institution establishes that the student who registers in a distance education course or program is the same student who participates in and completes the program and receives the academic credit” (Carter, b, 2008, italics added for emphasis).

This article is based on information gathered from 142 world news articles and digested by Don Sorensen, vice president of marketing for Caveon Test Security Systems, in 21 Cheating in the News newsletters archived at http://www.caveon.com/resources_news.htm.  Approximately 7,700 individuals subscribe to this free, biweekly e-mail newsletter digest.

The authors delimited findings from newsletters dated January 2008 to July 2009 even though the archive has e-newsletters back to February 13, 2004, for three reasons: (1) hyperlink accessibility to original news sources was less reliable any farther back than two years, (2) most current news on cheating is from the past year or two, and (3) to make the study more manageable.

Purpose

This article seeks to summarize findings relevant to the question “is it the same student” taken from over a hundred recent news articles about cheating. The synthesis of the news articles resulted in ten topics that all begin with the word “how”: (1) how much media coverage cheating is receiving; (2) how much cheating exists—and is increasing; (3) how cheating occurs in all institutional sectors: K-12, higher education, business, and government; (4) how an academic field and business niche for academic dishonesty has emerged; (5) how new terminology is used to describe cheating nuances; (6) how assorted are the types of cheaters; (7) how students and test makers react when cheating occurs; (8) how varied are the institutional consequences for cheating; (9) how students are cheating; and (10) how institutions are combating cheating.

How much media coverage cheating is receiving

The newsletter author, Don Sorensen, indicated that for every 10 articles his news aggregator gathered from across the Web using keyword terms “cheating,” “test fraud,” “exam fraud,” “exam cheating,” “test cheating,” and “certification cheating” he selected and reported on one. If the ten-to-one reporting ratio is extrapolated to 142 news articles approximately 1,420 (142 X 10) news articles appeared on cheating during the past 18 month period alone.

Frankly, it is surprising to discover that Cheating in the News even exists and that it digests just a few of the hundreds of news articles written about cheating each year. Of the 142 articles extant at the time of this writing 88 were from the United States and 54 from international sources. Furthermore, these news articles appeared in some of the more notable newspapers. In descending order of frequency, those media outlets from which three or more articles were extracted are listed with number of instances parenthetically noted:  Network World (8), China View (7), Boston Globe (6), Business Week (5), Wall Street Journal (4), U.S. News and World Report (3), New York Times (3), Dallas Morning News (3), and eSchool News (3).

How much cheating exists—and is increasing

Nearly every other issue of Cheating in the News included another study about how much cheating occurs and in many instances how it is increasing. While experimental designs, research criteria and assumptions, sample sizes, and individuals studied were different, they found widespread cheating.

The most significant studies identified in the news follow:

Cheating is more prevalent than most realize, especially to parents (97 %) who do not realize their own children may be part of the one-third who use cell phones to cheat. While the results of some of these studies may contradict numbers and percentages, they all tell the same story:  cheating is prevalent and on the rise.

How cheating occurs in all institutional sectors: K–12, higher education, business, and government

Cheating is a worldwide problem for not only K–12 and higher education, but also for governments and corporations. Some typical examples of cheating across these different settings follow: 

How an academic field and business niche for academic dishonesty has emerged

Cheating is now the subject of academic research, and preventing cheating the mission of companies. Caveon Test Security, the company that sponsors and creates the newsletter Cheating in the News states on its Web site that “Caveon is the first test-security firm to offer protection against test piracy and cheating. Using proprietary detection services, we identify breaches, offer remediation services to halt and prosecute abuses of sensitive test information, and provide prevention services to help secure your testing programs from further compromise” (http://www.caveon.com/services/services.htm). While it considers itself the first test security firm in existence, many others also provide services to prevent and identify cheating.

One of the news articles reported on the academic work of Dr. Donald McCabe, a professor from Rutgers University who “has studied cheating and plagiarism among undergraduate and graduate business students”; he concluded that penalties should match the intent of the cheater but also acknowledges it is a “difficult position [to evaluate] the individual motivation of each student” (Mintz, 2008). Another article introduced Dr. Jason Stephens, an assistant professor of educational technology at the University of Connecticut, as “a rising star in the field of academic dishonesty” who conducted a national survey on cheating and who also “thinks he has an answer for what he describes as a cheating epidemic” (“Researcher Studies,” 2008).  And in yet another the reader learns about interventions set forth to prevent cheating in the state of Texas by a Canadian professor, Dr. George Wesolowsky, “who studies cheating” (Hacker, 2008).  Finally, a university newspaper announced that David Callahan, author of the book The Cheating Culture,would speak to faculty and students (de Stefano, 2008).

How new terminology is used to describe cheating nuances

These news articles introduced unfamiliar cheating jargon to some of the authors. Terms include “invigilator” for a test proctor (“Student Opens Fire,” 2008), “organized cheating” for a group of cheaters who conspire to cheat together (“Law to Curb Exam” 2008), and “leaked” to describe answers and papers made available to students through a test authority or educator before the test is administered (Seuraj, 2009). 

However, the most frequently used unfamiliar term was “braindump” (R. Williams, 2008; “Stolen Tests,” 2008). To truly understand the cheating industry it is necessary to know the term “braindump.”  They are active businesses, typically managed online, that provide students with studying services; they often guarantee candidates passing scores.  Many study Web sites, such as Cramster and Course Hero, are developed to help students study (Chaker, 2009).  However, debate continues over whether or not these sites, or aspects of them, enable cheating. Questions arise over students’ accessibility to previous tests and questions, homework solutions to textbooks assignments, step-by-step solutions, and graded essays. Subscription to these braindump sites is increasing and, simultaneously, so is concern by test developers over copyright infringements.

Some professors and teachers disagree with such sites’ functions and purposes while other educators use them as learning tools for themselves as well as their students (“Two Teachers,” 2009).  One such online resource that straddles the line between resourceful study tool and braindump is the Facebook application “Let’s Cram.” In an article concerning the application, Karl Walter states, “Education chiefs have slammed the idea [Let’s Cram] as dangerous, as children using the application get questions answered for them, resulting in them not learning anything” (Walderman, 2009).  Some universities have regulated the material and resources employed on individual sites and yet business for such sites is profitable and more students are using them.

Jargon is also used to describe various cheaters. There are several terms used to describe a cheater’s cheater who stands in for a student scheduled for the examination: proxy (Rafter, 2008), impersonator, non available candidate (Ozordi, 2009), or gunmen and hired hands (“Stolen Tests,” 2008).  It is evident from the cheating jargon that cheaters are more than just the students who should be taking the test—hence, the question asked of distance educators by many: “is it the same student?”

How assorted are the types of cheaters

It would be narrow-minded to think that students are the only ones cheating.  Granted, a large portion of cheaters consists primarily of students and their peers copying papers, texting, or using questionable online resources, but the percentage of cases that involve a teacher, business, potential employee, employer, test authority, or parent is also significant.  Interestingly, the majority of entities reporting such situations occurred outside of the United States, especially where school exams and tests have a much greater bearing on college placement and career employment.  In China, for example, where student population is high and acceptance to college greatly affects an individual’s future career, it is a matter of utmost importance that students perform well on their exams. 

An article from China’s People’s Daily Online, concerned two teachers and 29 students using technological cheating devices during the national college entrance examination.  One of the teachers, Liu Yanhua, confessed that for a fee, she would help children cheat (“Two Teachers,” 2009).  It was not disclosed whether the Web site from which Liu obtained the cheating devices was specifically advertised and setup to encourage cheating.  However, other articles from the Caveon Archives report selling cheating devices and techniques as a lucrative business plan (Wang, 2008). Reports have emerged of large organizations being formed involving complex plans. Another article reported a city official who helped 27 students cheat by giving “commission fees” to police officers (Gao, 2008). 

News articles from countries that place high priority on school exams for university placement also reported a higher number of types of people involved in cheating. This is congruent with a specific study done on cheating that reported honor students and high-GPA students as more likely to cheat than average and struggling students because the pressure to succeed, compete, and perform is greater (Berry, 2009). This would also explain why quite a few articles concerning graduate school tests, such as GMAT, reported a high number of cheaters.  A survey of more than 200,000 covering a 19-year period concluded that “those in business school cheat more than their peers in other disciplines” (Hechinger, 2008).  Many graduate students will hire proxies, who have made a business of impersonating students, to sit the exams. The Wall Street Journal reported on business graduates paying $3,000 each for a proxy test-taker.

How students and test makers react when cheating occurs

Another surprising finding from reviewing these news articles was how the accused, and those accusing, reacted. The news stories reveal how canceled scores, lawsuits, riots, gunplay, and more have resulted. Some reactions follow:

While some cheaters acknowledge their cheating, many do not, but in those stories digested in Cheating in the News it was evident that the reactions were varied and significant.

How varied are the institutional consequences for cheating

In these news articles the consequences for cheating ranged from nothing to imprisonment with probation, expulsion, fines, and cancelled scores in between. A no-consequence example was reported by Gulfnews.com wherein a student disclosed that “many of [his] colleagues just copy and paste data from the internet for their projects and assignments and what's worse, some teachers realise [sic] this but choose to turn a blind eye" (Najami, 2009).  An imprisonment example came from China where parents and teachers involved in helping students cheat were sentenced up to three years for helping students cheat (Branigan, 2009).

Two contrasting instances involving cheating students and the judiciary were cited elsewhere: (1) two university students in the Caribbean who used a leaked exam to prepare for the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Test received a $1000 fine and were sentenced to six-months in prison (Seuraj, 2009); and (2) in New Delhi a local magistrate determined that those university students brought before the court for cheating were too young to imprison and, hence, “forgave” them. (The judge did reprimand the parents for poor rearing and the students were debarred from the institution but allowed to enroll at another institution [Saxena, 2009]).

Many are the instances of consequences from these articles where consequences were somewhere between the two extremes of imprisonment and nothing: (1) Philadelphia Temple University’s academic honor code allows professors to use their own discretion when dealing with cheating students (Berry, 2009) and, (2) one student was disqualified from the GMAT after bragging online how a site helped him cheat.  Business school administrators are evaluating students’ use of the site in order to determine whether they also will be disqualified and possibly banned from taking the exam in the future (Levy & Lawyue, 2008).

How students are cheating

While the prevalence of cheating was the most surprising finding from this study, the methods of cheating were next most surprising. The news articles made it evident that the newest methods of cheating utilize technologies but that old ways are still commonplace and widely popular. The most common method of cheating in these news articles was the use of “braindumps” which was defined earlier in the terminology section.

Now, the most current cheating methods represented in the news articles:

How institutions are combating cheating

So how much money is an institution willing to spend to prevent cheating? The U.S. Army budgeted six million dollars to employ procedures and devices to help mitigate cheating among the country’s soldiers (Bender, 2008). Is that enough money to prevent cheating, especially when one cheating company alone “grosses an estimated ten million annually” (Baron, 2008)?  In some sectors and parts of the world cheating is not only a common practice but also a big business.

This section will share some of the interventions used by institutions to mitigate cheating—and not all of them cost millions. While some of the methods employ devices others use procedures and policies and some use both types. Institutions and policymakers choose from a variety of methods that best fit philosophy and circumstance.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, cheating is pervasive and on the rise throughout the world. Those in distance education are faced with a formidable challenge to ensure the identity of test takers and integrity of exam results, especially since students are physically removed from the classroom and distributed across the globe. This news digest will provide distance educators not only with a better understanding and awareness of issues surrounding cheating but also suggest solutions that might be adopted to help mitigate cheating in their programs. While technologies, including “braindump” Web sites and cell phones, are the more common cheating behaviors today, the problem of cheating will always beleaguer distance educators; it is their responsibility to stay current on latest developments in the field of academic dishonesty, employ fitting interventions to mitigate cheating, and do everything possible to preserve the integrity of distance education.


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Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume XII, Number III, Fall 2009
University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center
Back to the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration Contents