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Enhancing K-12 Academic Integrity

By Doug Barnard, Terry Hutchins / November 2009

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Cheating has dramatically increased, at all levels, in the past few years. How cheating and false identity issues are addressed by individual online education programs will determine the collective futures of everyone working in e-learning.

Does your distance learning program have a solid academic integrity reputation, or does it just give the illusion of integrity?

We are at a crossroads regarding how distance learning programs are accepted by other educational entities. Already, some school districts and even military recruiters are balking at the acceptance of credits from less than reputable online programs. The road we take, as a distance learning community, charter, public, or private program will either garner respect for our academic integrity and accountability, or give further evidence that these online programs are viewed as less efficient at preparing students for the next level of learning.

Programs with a reputation for being degree mills, where little work or time is required to receive a transcript, will increase the base of disbelievers who question our existence.

However, strong academic integrity will ensure our growth and future success.

The important question about academic integrity in distance learning is: How do you know that the student who enrolled in the course is the same person who is doing the work and taking the exams?

Few online educators want to answer this question, and we suspect it's because they do very little to answer it. Let's examine some of the typical responses we've heard.

"We call the student weekly and ask questions to ensure they are doing the work."
If that's the answer, then the question becomes: How do you know the person on the phone is the person who is enrolled in the class? What happens when the student doesn't give an appropriate response?

Verifying the student's identity would take several school administrators on the phone all the time (as is often the case when we try to reach a student or parent anyway; we can't seem to find anyone who will pick up the phone most of the time). Playing phone-tag takes a great deal of time, and is not efficient or effective.

"We know the writing style of the student, and we can tell when a paper is submitted that's different."
If that's the answer, then the question is: How do you know the one with the specific writing style is the same person who enrolled in the class and is doing the work?

One large program in Arizona outsourced the grading of coursework by sending it to India. There's nothing wrong with this, I guess, but it makes it difficult to learn individual writing styles.

"We have a large test bank from which to structure our tests so that there is no cheating."
Having a test bank may solve some problems, but it doesn't answer the identity question. How do you know the student taking the test is the same person who did the earlier work and received the credit?

Additionally, how secure are the test banks? One of the largest programs in the nation had someone break into its test banks. How do you know the student taking the test hasn't seen the questions?

Bad Apples
The truth of the matter is that nobody has a definitive answer. From our experience, many distance learning programs are wide open for students who wish to plagiarize and take the work of others as their own and get away with it. Nobody wants to talk about how "open" some of these systems actually are.

The following are some real events that do not help the public perception of online credibility and accountability:

  • A leading university used the football coach as the proctor for an online course taken by a group of football players. They all did a marvelous job on tests, if you can believe it.
  • One of the largest online programs in the country allows testing with no confirmation that the student taking the test is the same student who did the work. There's no proctoring system. One large online program has college students as both instructors and tutors for their students, people who aren't trained or experienced in knowing learning styles of different students.
  • Some online program representatives state that they included multiple assessments throughout each course, which is better than having a proctored final exam. It still doesn't answer the question: How do you know the person taking the test is the same person who enrolled and did the course work?

In Arizona, a group of stake holders (online charter and public school programs) were at a legislative meeting, and the issue of proctored tests was discussed. Some of the participants advocated a proctored final exam, while some even added that the student had to pass the final to pass the course.

A well-known national charter school suggested a change in the law that states there should be multiple assessments throughout a course—all reputable courses already have multiple quizzes and tests—and that all state-required tests be proctored. The only state-required test in Arizona was the test required for high school graduation, which was always given under both proctored and very strict standards. This addition to the law is akin to requiring that all cars and trucks on the freeway have wheels. They already have wheels!

Most reputable programs already have multiple assessments, and the only state-required test was already proctored. Then what good would the new law be? It's a red herring that implies there will now be proctored final exams. Not true. It has nothing to do with proctored course finals. Nothing was gained with this addition to the bill other than to give the "illusion" that required tests were proctored. It's misleading to the public.

Perhaps the motives of the originators of online programs are different, and we suspect they are. Many of the programs in different states are the same programs sponsored by companies who must operate at a profit, whereas public school programs aren't so concerned with making money as they are with enhancing academic opportunities for students. There's nothing wrong with either, but it might explain why some don't want to add more cost to a program. Requiring proctors would increase costs.

The bottom line is that distance learning programs are wide open to those who want to take advantage of both programs and courses that do not follow academic integrity practices. If online learning is to become an alternative for academic achievement, there must be a strong academic integrity process in place or all programs will lose credibility in the eyes of the public, including public schools.

There's an old saying: "You can fool the spectators, but you can't fool the players."

Meat of an Academic Integrity Statement
Oh, all programs have academic integrity policy statements. I don't know a single program that doesn't. But statements merely give the illusion of having academic integrity.

What's really needed are processes that back up those statements, and do, in fact, provide academic integrity (see the list of tips at the end). If not, they just pay lip service and continue with the illusion that they have high standards.

Some programs require students to pass the final to receive credit for a course. When a student scores a high mark on her coursework, but gets a 30 percent on the final, one has to wonder if it was the same person.

We fully recognize that even following the safeguards that we recommend, students can still deceive and beat the system, but it will be much harder for them—and it will be easier for the program to reduce misconduct.

We require students to take a proctored final. It has been our experience that students who did the work score a grade on the final that is similar to the grade earned on the assignments that were turned in throughout the course. When there is a major discrepancy, such as earning 90 percent on most coursework but only scoring a 30 on the final, there is a strong suspicion that someone else did the work. We also require students to pass the final exam to receive credit for the course.

Tolerance Level
Why is the whole notion of ensuring that the enrolled student is the one doing the work and taking the test not discussed in professional circles?

Why are some programs defending a system that gives multiple opportunities for cheating?

Why don't accreditation agencies ensure that there are proctored tests and that all programs are accountable to the public and to the families involved?

In the end, you get what you are willing to tolerate. Are online program leaders willing to tolerate the misrepresentation of academic integrity that is taking place in many programs? Or, are programs saying that there's still academic integrity in a system just so other educational institutions can say they are reputable. Academic integrity is an assurance that the grades earned are simply that—earned!

Steps to Enhancing Academic Integrity

  • Make your academic integrity statement public.
  • Take a photograph of students who register for courses, and require each student to have a matching photo ID that they must show before taking the final exam.
  • Have an introductory module in the program's orientation so that students and parents are aware of plagiarism and other forms of misconduct.
  • Have an external system to check for plagiarism, such as TurnItIn.
  • Have an internal system to check for plagiarism on course assignments.
  • Use watermarking, an invisible tag used as a check for plagiarism.
  • Make sure all finals and mid-terms are proctored by a staff member or by a proctor approved by the program—not students. Equally, don't let students sit a test at home. Tests should always take place in a public building.
  • Make sure the computers students use can monitor Web activity, showing when a student leave the test window to, for example, visit other sites.
  • Have a test bank where each test question is randomized to prevent assistance from others.
  • Have a testing room with video cameras to monitor any activity that might take place when no one is looking. Recordings should be kept for at least a month.


  • Sat, 27 Sep 2008
    Post by Sally Schmidt

    One game is already doing a version of this. On, to complete some of the tasks, kids have to go to a real library to look up a fact in a real book. Then they enter the fact back in the game on the site to validate that they have accomplished the task. Granted, this is not perfect (kids could share the info), but at least one kid is going to have to go to the library.

  • Wed, 17 Sep 2008
    Post by David Jea

    I also put the block diagram on the website for your reference. See the link below,

  • Wed, 17 Sep 2008
    Post by David Jea

    Due to space limitation, we omit the architecture part of the proposed approach. I am attaching it below. ------------------ Services initiators (e.g. schools and teachers, social workers, hospitals, fire and police departments, etc.) send community services requests to the game companies. Each request describes its job responsibilities, requirement, amount of work hours and location. These requests are categorized according to their descriptions. Once a request is approved, the game company assigns a unique code to the service initiator. These requests are categorized according to their descriptions. As the game proceeds, the system prompts a new virtual task and an alternate reality task with matching difficulty. If the player chooses the alternate reality task, s/he then reports to the corresponding service initiator. Upon completion of the described service, the services initiator hands the unique code to the player. The player uses the code as a proof to gain rewards and continues the game. Note that for a player to "trust" this mechanism, it is critical that all services initiators strictly follow the described task contents without asking for extra efforts.