Cheating and the Online Environment

Is it easier to cheat in an online environment than in a face-to-face learning environment?

Whether or not it is easier to cheat in an online environment versus face-to-face depends greatly on several factors such as success, aptitude, attitude, and access.

Level of success – If easier is associated with getting away with the behavior, and then it is probably not easier to cheat online because of the many technological deterrents readily available and implemented to detect cheating and/or plagiarism.  The plagiarism police aka programs like Turnitin and others easily compile information stored on the internet to determine if a student has plagiarized their work.  However, there are issues and problems with these programs as well (Munoz, 2012).

There is great concern over the possibility of an increasing trend of cheating on exams taken online through “getting assessment answers in advance, unfair retaking of assessments, and/or unauthorized help during the assessment”(Rowe, 2004, p. 2-3).  However, it must be noted that as described by Rowe, the students demonstrate extraordinary skill, aptitude, and/or considerable critical thinking strategy to carry out their nefarious deeds.  I consider myself fairly well versed in technology (for a digital immigrant), but I have never even remotely imagined these types of scenarios.  I can honestly say that there is a part of me that must wonder that if a student is capable of going to such extreme lengths, perhaps the class is not very challenging intellectually in the first place.  Further, and more significant to the discussion to follow, the students who know how to do such things know them for a reason.  Consider for a moment, there are individuals who participate in sub-cultures within the larger environment.  I, personally do not know how to obtain illegal substances, and would not know how to find out.  However, due to my prescription for Concerta, which is a stimulant, I must regularly go in for check-ups for my medication, and am only given my medication in small doses to ensure that I am not trading and/or selling it in some illicit drug scenario.  The fact that a small percentage of people know how to do such things combined with the coincidence of my prescription has created a situation in which my motives can become suspect (earned or otherwise).  It would seem the same is occurring within academia due to some percentage of students cheating and using technology to do it.  There are many commonsense countermeasures discussed by Cizek, such as “know the assessment takers” or “maintain assessment security” and others (Rowe, 2004, p. 5).  On the other hand, some suggestions seem a bit over the top such as described by Cizek in the categories of “control the assessment situation” and “entrapment” (Rowe, 2004, p. 5).  These smack a bit of big brother to me.

Level of access – If easier is to be associated with ease of access to material from which to cheat, I would rate access 50/50, again dependent upon additional factors:  Is the cheating occurring through crib sheets, collaboration, answers to previously taken tests?  Is the cheating in the form of plagiarism, cutting, and pasting?  Is the cheating turning in completely fraudulent work as your own?  Is the cheating the result of hacking into the LMS/CMS and/or other server to alter grades?  When, where, how?  Without the context, it is impossible to make an accurate determination.

According to several researchers cheating actually occurs in higher rates in face-to-face environments/traditional environments versus online (Stephens, Young, & Calabrese, 2007; Jocoy & DiBiase, 2006; Lester & Diekhoff, 2002).  This makes a certain level of sense to me.  The older adult online learner seems less likely to cheat for the very reasons they are attending universities online – access to knowledge, broaden their skill set, and advance their careers.

On the other hand, cheating in a specific environment provides scenarios that lend themselves to both traditional and digital environments; although, I admit technology has eased transference of ill-gotten information.  For instance, I had secondary students who thought it impressive to brag about being able to text answers to friends in other classes without being caught.  This occurred in face-to-face classes under the so-called watchful eye of the teacher.  In addition, believe me, at the school I taught students were not allowed to have their telephones on during class at the risk of the phone being confiscated.  Yet, cheating with technology and without still happened.

Have the nature and prevalence of cheating changed with the expansion of online learning opportunities and changes in technology?  Honestly, I reviewed numerous articles for this week’s topic out of genuine intrigue.  Our class covered the topic of electronic plagiarism detection software in the last course, but negated to explore the actual trends and/or frequency cheating.  What I found, however, was far from conclusive.  In fact, despite very persuasive writings of some authors, inclusive of emotionally charged statements designed to create concern, the statistics regarding cheating have not significantly increased or proliferated as the media would like us to believe.  According to Stephens, learners in traditional environments are exceeded only by learners who are willing to cheat exclusive of environment (Stephens et al., 2007; Lester & Diekhoff, 2002), with digital only cheaters lagging significantly behind.  McCabe, a researcher who has made a veritable career out of investigating the relationships, significance, and types of cheating in various learning environments wrote an article with Stephens in whom they posit that plagiarism is not an “epidemic” but rather a “conduit” or simply a means to an end (McCabe & Stephens, 2006).  More importantly, rather than taking the “build a better mousetrap approach” (McCabe & Stephens, 2006, p. 1) they suggest focusing on cultural changes within academia.

What should be done?  What an absolutely great question, perhaps the million-dollar question.  The resources provided numerous approaches conservative to downright militaristic.  The easy way out would be to claim a middle-of-the-road position; however, I do not typically take the easy way out.  The articles left me with far more questions than answers.  For instance, the studies done regarding cheating and plagiarism survey and otherwise have mixed results, plus generalization and validity issues.  These studies are plagued with bias issues, quantification issues and qualification issues.  However, when read together a pattern begins to emerge.  No, not that there is more cheating or plagiarism, but that there are certain attitudinal trends that are related to cheating and/or plagiarism behaviors, as well as other “ incivility” behaviors (Galbraith & Jones, 2010, p. 1) that definitely need another look.  Perhaps, everyone is spending so much time looking at the trees they have missed the forest?


Chao, C., Wilhelm, W. J., & Neureuther, B. D. (2009, Winter).  A study of electronic detection and pedagogical approaches for reducing plagiarism.  The Delta Pi Epsilon JournalL1 (1), 31-42.  Retrieved from EBSCOhost

Galbraith, M., & Jones, M. (2010).  Understanding incivility in online teaching.  Journal of Adult Education39(2), 1-9.  Retrieved from EBSCOhost

Jocoy, C., & DiBiase, D. (2006, June).  Plagiarism by adult learners online: A case study in detection and remediation.  International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning7(1), 1-15.  Retrieved from EBSCOhost

Lester, M., & Diekhoff, G. (2002).  A comparison of traditional and internet cheaters.  Journal of College Student Development43, 906-911.  Retrieved from EBSCOhost

McCabe, D. (2005).  Cheating among college and university students: A North American perspective.  International Journal of Educational Integrity1(1).  Retrieved from

McCabe, D., & Stephens, J. (2006, November 30).  “Epidemic” as opportunity: Internet plagiarism as a lever for cultural change.  Teachers College Record.  Retrieved from

Milliron, V., & Sandoe, K. (2008).  The net generation cheating challenge.  Innovate4(6), 1-7.  Retrieved from

Munoz, L. (2012, April 5).  Plagiarism detection and prevention [Web log message].  Retrieved from

Rowe, N. (2004).  Cheating in online student assessment: Beyond plagiarism.  Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration7(2).  Retrieved from

Schmidt, S., Ralph, D., & Buskirk, B. (2009).  Utilizing online exams: A case study.  Journal of College Teaching & Learning6(8), 1-8.  Retrieved from EBSCOhost

Stephens, J., Young, M., & Calabrese, T. (2007).  Does moral judgment go offline when students are online?  A comparative analysis of undergraduates’ beliefs and behaviors related to conventional and digital cheating.  Ethics & Behavior,17(3), 233-254.  Retrieved from


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