DECEMBER 22, 2015
Alvin Malesky has taught online classes for at least seven years and, as a former law-enforcement officer and forensic psychologist, is trained to detect deception.
Last year he and a colleague at Western Carolina University, concerned about the growing threat of online cheating and the legitimacy of companies that purport to do students’ work, set up an experiment to test the market. With the help of a research grant, they created a fake online course and paid several students to cheat, including one who hired a company to take the entire class for him. The professors concealed from themselves the identities of the students, then tried to catch the cheaters.
Their goal was to see how easily students could find a company that would assume their identity — participating in weekly discussion boards, writing papers, and taking exams — while passing off all of the work as their own. Such a study, the professors figured, could help them assess the reliability of online-cheating companies and determine how serious a challenge they pose to online education.
Mr. Malesky and a colleague, Robert Crow, an assistant professor of educational research, created a phony 10-week introductory-psychology course, enrolling 12 undergraduates and three graduate students who had already taken such a class. The students enrolled to gain research experience, to earn honors credit, or to be part of an independent research project. (The research was approved by Western Carolina’s institutional review board as well as its chief counsel, registrar, and campus police.)
Working with the registrar’s office, the professors assigned the students fake names, student-identification numbers, and email addresses. Even the professor listed on the syllabus was made up. (A third instructor acted as a liaison between the students and the other faculty members.)
Before the course started, the professors dangled an incentive: If they failed to identify any of the students who had cheated, those students would be eligible for a $350 raffle. Could the instructors outsmart the impostor?
Thousands of Online Cheaters
Mr. Malesky, an associate professor and head of the psychology department at Western Carolina, which is near Asheville, N.C., was an early skeptic of online classes, viewing them as a watered-down version of education. But as he has taught more online courses — at least two every summer in recent years — he has come to see their value. Yet he wondered how easily they could be exploited.
Several years ago, after reading about the growth of essay mills and services that advertise taking online courses for a fee, he started asking his students about their experience with cheating. He says he was surprised at how prevalent they said cheating was, and how quickly the online-cheating market had grown.
“I got concerned,” he says. “Are these services legitimate, or is it just a way to scam students?”‘I got concerned. Are these services legitimate, or is it just a way to scam students?’
According to his and Mr. Crow’s research, which is to be published next year in the journal College Teaching, some seven million students, or almost a third of all those attending college, were enrolled in at least one online course last year. If even a small percentage of those students cheated, the professors wrote in their paper — “Academic Dishonesty: Assessing the Threat of Cheating Companies to Online Education” — that translates into tens of thousands of online cheaters each year.
For their experiment, the researchers tapped John Baley, then a graduate student in clinical psychology, to contact various companies and determine which one could best help him cheat. He started by typing a few phrases into a search engine: “online class help”; “take my class for me”; “cheat in my online class.”
Some 20 websites consistently came up, and he selected eight that appeared viable, contacting each by email. He eliminated sites for a number of reasons. Several, for example, offered to complete only single assignments, not entire courses. One site requested nearly $3,000, which he believed was too expensive for a typical college student.
Mr. Baley discovered that at least two sites shared a domain in India. The email responses from those businesses were so “elementary,” Mr. Baley wrote in an account of his experience included in the paper, that “I was concerned that they could not adequately complete our course and earn an A.”
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