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Who Would Want to Cheat in an Online Course? Ask Dilbert

By Lisa Neal / March 2006

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I always read the "Dilbert" comics in the newspaper, and I've often found the corporate experiences of Dilbert and his colleagues to be eerily similar to my own. When Dilbert's pointy-haired boss recently enrolled in an online course, I expected he would be far from an ideal student. I was right: He asked one of his employees to take his midterm exam and then complained when he got a "B" on the test. Like many other Dilbert comics about life in a cubicle, these comics are simultaneously funny and painful since, unfortunately, online cheating is all too common. More should be done to address this problem, and to determine what lies at its root.

When I was fairly new to e-learning, I occasionally read about online cheating but didn't take it too seriously. My first teaching experiences, at EDS, involved senior employees who were intrinsically motivated to learn and who were not graded. I expected significant class participation, didn't give tests, and asked students to work in small groups on class projects with progress reports along the way. There was nothing to cheat on.

On a business trip around that time, I had the opportunity to meet someone I had worked with extensively but had never met in person. We went out for dinner, and (knowing my interest in e-learning) she told me about her experiences in an online program, her first foray into education since college. She casually confessed that her husband had taken her final exam for her because she wanted a good grade. I was quite taken aback, and I wasn't sure what disturbed me more: that she cheated or that she told me about it so casually. (Later, I wished I had asked her if she cheated in college as well—or would have if she knew no one could see her.) Many institutions attempt to personalize their online courses. But I have to wonder if online students feel less connected to their teachers or less committed to the learning process and therefore relax their personal ethics.

Clearly, this woman and Dilbert's boss—a fictitious character even if reminiscent of one of my own managers from the past—are not the only ones to cheat on online exams, which leads me to wonder about the root of this problem. Students should know that cheating is wrong whether one is seen (in the classroom) or not (online). The pervasiveness of e-learning now necessitates early education-or re-education-that cheating is wrong.

Even in targeted education, there will always be violators for whom intrinsic motivation and the joy of learning are not enough: Some will always want the good grade without putting in the time and effort. It doesn't seem right that everyone should suffer as a result and (in some cases) have to drive to an approved location and take a proctored exam (though this process will always be required when certification is involved). More accountability and connectedness to a teacher and other students might increase commitment and lead to a more responsible attitude. From a design perspective, courses could be more project-centered and less dependent on exams. However, none of these approaches work if Dilbert's boss tells his employee to take the entire course for him.


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