Every Move You Make, Every Bond You Break

Students tell us not to trust them. About three-quarters of all students self-report in various surveys that they are prone to cheat in their classes. And the many well-publicized scandals at some of America's most renowned institutions only prove they mean what they say. Why is this?

First, all too often the relationship between student and institution is transactional - even adversarial - focused on how to secure the best possible outcome with the least effort. The goal is the credential, not necessarily the wisdom it signifies. This reflects uninspiring, disengaged teaching as well as under-motivated students. Still, deceit is the dark side of the educational process.

Second is the belief that cheating is victimless, common, and even necessary. Students do not know nor care how dishonesty corrupts the fairness of the system and misrepresents personal achievement. They easily rationalize that everyone cheats, which, by its very nature, quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Third is the growing number of international students. All too often, as dean, I would hear from faculty how academic dishonesty is more rampant abroad. Americans, though, are not necessarily exceptionally honest. Evidenced by those caught cheating or plagiarizing, the foreign factor likely reflects the proportion of the dishonest so inept in their mischievousness that they are in the small minority caught in the act. For the vast majority, cheating has a low downside. For many, it is a well-cultivated skill. Behavioral ethicist Dan Ariely issued a tongue-in-cheek warning for grandmothers that they were more likely to die around their grandchildren's exam time, particularly among those at risk of failing and seeking to delay their test.

Fourth is the very real threat of depersonalization in the online classroom - where the chasm between professor and student, and among students themselves, can widen. We are quickly approaching the point where the majority of all of America's students will have taken at least one online course in their academic career. One-eighth of all students already are exclusively online in their studies and another one-eighth are currently enrolled in an individual online class as part of their courseload.

Here too good teaching can mitigate this. There is no reason why online classes cannot achieve or even exceed the intimacy of the typical classroom experience, particularly those in large lecture halls. If designed and delivered well, online instructors have a wealth of data on their students: how often they participate, what they contribute to discussion boards, how they perform in periodic quizzes. It would cost a small fortune for dishonest students in well-constructed online courses to hire poseurs to take their courses and exams, and write their papers. Anything that expands to be impersonal tempts ethical fate, whether online or in large lecture halls. (In such a setting, Ted Kennedy, as a Harvard freshman, was suspended for having a friend take his Spanish exam.) "Distance" in an online course can be as much psychological as geographic, and harm the social contract of students and their academic program.

In online programs we have the ability to combine well-designed and well-taught courses with modern technology - and create deterrents to cheating. We need to change the risk-reward ratio to make it clear that dishonesty is likely to be caught and prosecuted. We need to return the focus to inspiring learning outcomes, not catching culprits. And we need solutions that are neither costly in time and money, nor distracting and inconvenient for students and faculty.

The new reality is that discouraging and catching dishonesty might be easier than ever, and will allow us to return our attention to what really matters.

With colleague Dennis Berkey, I recently conducted a survey of online leaders throughout the US to see what they thought about cheating in distance learning and ways to address this. Are those registered the ones actually participating in the virtual classroom, is exam cheating rampant, do students write original or plagiarized papers? And, is the online environment even more conducive to dishonesty than the traditional classroom?

While more than four-fifths of the 141 respondents agreed that student dishonesty is a major issue in American higher education, almost the same percentage thought they, as stewards of their school's online programs, had this under control. Interestingly, their solution is to outsource.

A fascinating phenomenon is the rapid rise of educational technology companies and their growing focus on academic integrity as a business opportunity. The Ed Tech industry, in general, is now attracting a $1.61 billion investment, almost four times its size five years ago. Whether to appease a skeptical public or address very real issues, a current concern in online courses is to check originality in writing, authenticity in student enrollment, and honesty in test taking. Automation is replacing labor-intensive proctoring. Through facial recognition and monitoring test takers and their online access, institutions are becoming increasingly reliant on high tech tools for policing online courses. As these methods become more automated, their costs will decline, their reliability will increase, and their presence will become less intrusive and disruptive.

With effective solutions emerging, the social issue for our future, not only as students but as citizens, will be our comfort level with various methods of monitoring - and whether we can agree that this, at least in higher education, serves the greater good.

Jay A. Halfond is a professor and former dean at Boston University and a research fellow at Bentley University's Center for Business Ethics.