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Universities are under assault by online predators who undermine academic integrity by luring students into schemes to cheat on courses, Douglas Harrison, University of Maryland University College (UMUC) associate dean of the graduate school, said in a webinar on “The Cheating Economy and Integrity,” earlier in October.

The event was sponsored by WCET, a non-profit advocate for technology-enhanced learning, and held in conjunction with International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating. The webinar brought together university officials concerned with the growing threat to academic integrity, an issue that is not unique to UMUC or to online learning.

However, UMUC’s efforts to combat contract cheating and to nurture integrity stand out, said Harrison in a recent Town Hall meeting at UMUC.

By example of predatory behavior, a student who may be in the middle of an online class gets an email from an unknown person offering to write a paper for $10 a page to help the student get through the course—or to take the entire course for the student for $480, Harrison said.

This type of cheating scheme is exploding on social media as a growing number of students opt for online classes to complete their degrees, Harrison told attendees and added that the trend could undermine the integrity of higher education if students cheat their way to graduation without learning the basics they need to be productive employees.

“We know if we are going to be responsible to our students and our mission, we have to respond effectively to maintain integrity as our core component,” he said.

Preventing predators from offering their services to students may not be altogether possible—and students who cheat are each motivated by different reasons and circumstances. Given the complexity of the problem, UMUC recognized both the need to take intentional steps to thwart cheating and to develop an overarching, comprehensive approach to promote integrity across the entire academic enterprise.

It formed the Academic Integrity Working Group, chaired by Harrison; UMUC’s integrated plan grew out of the group’s efforts after a year-and-a-half of work, he said and represents a reimagining of academic integrity—an exceptional learning environment in which students’ lack any incentives to cheat.

“More than avoiding or sanctioning misconduct,” he said, “teaching and learning with integrity ensures the knowledge, skills and abilities that students develop are authentic and demonstrable and thus support autonomy and self-determination in life and work.”

As a first step in developing the action plan, the working group determined a hierarchy of threats ranging from the outright fraud of degrees for hire to full courses for hire to partial help with courses, Harrison said.  They considered, too, the regular academic misconduct that schools have always battled, such as buying some kind of content online, plagiarism and misattribution, as well as copyright violations that occur when students upload information without authorization.

The university also must counter the mass distribution of its course materials on hundreds of third-party websites without authorization, he said.

As an outgrowth of the working group, UMUC has put together a suite of tools that it will implement to fight fraud, Harrison said.  They include:

  • Behavioral biometric tools such as digital fingerprints to assure the online student is the person who signed up for the course.
  • Online checks for the similarity of papers through such devices as Turnitin.
  • Tools that can spot radical changes in writing style from papers a student had turned in previously.
  • Bot crawlers that can search through the internet to find UMUC-licensed materials that have been stolen.
  • Customer Relationship Management services that will allow the university to manage misconduct cases.
Adel Lelo, the senior principal product manager at Western Governors University, also participated in the webinar and told attendees about the “eye-opening moments” when he “learned some of the predatory techniques that the cheating economy was using to reach our students.”

Some cheaters used language to convince students that buying their help was not wrong and was even sanctioned by the university.

“Employers must trust that we have verified competencies relevant to the jobs they are hiring,” Lelo said. “If trust is lost, the value of our degrees and credentials is greatly diminished.  That goes to the very center of higher education.”