Despite the convenience and popularity of online college courses, some prospective students still hesitate to enroll. They wonder if a degree earned online is worth it and will be taken seriously by future employers. Often, this concern reflects the fear that enough students cheat in online classes to undermine the value of an online education.

The Prevalence of Academic Dishonesty in Online Courses

It’s true that academic dishonesty is widespread in online degree programs. In fact, one study found that 72.5 percent of students enrolled in an online course – nearly three-quarters of the students – admitted to cheating on quizzes, according to the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching.

Cheating can happen in various ways in an online course. Just as in traditional courses, a student could have another person complete his or her homework. Students could purchase essays from online paper mills or submit a paper written by another person. However, because online courses lack in-person instructor supervision, students can also cheat on tests and quizzes. Students may illicitly consult textbooks and online course materials while taking these examinations. Because instructors of online courses typically never meet their students face-to-face, they may not know if the person registered for the course, the one who is getting the credits to graduate, is actually the one doing the work at all.

How Online College Degree Programs Combat Cheating

One way online college degree programs try to tackle the issue of academic dishonesty is by having students sign honor codes in which they promise not to cheat. Studies show that this strategy may not produce the desired results, particularly in situations in which students perceive the instructor as being distant. However, studies on blended or hybrid courses, which require both online and in-person participation, suggest that honor codes for online students may be more effective in courses in which there is more personal interaction between the students and the instructor.

There are other ways that college degree programs and other players in higher education, and in the government, are working to decrease cheating. Many schools have adopted strict or no-tolerance academic dishonesty policies that severely penalize students who get caught cheating, to the point of failing an assignment or a course, or even facing expulsion. Instructors can use anti-cheating software to determine if a student has plagiarized, and companies are currently working to develop more sophisticated software. The 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act includes a section on program integrity that requires all United States colleges offering online courses to have procedures in place to make sure the student earning the credits is the one doing the coursework, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Colleges, individual instructors, companies and the government are cracking down on academic dishonesty in online courses and developing new ways to catch and prevent cheating. For honest students, this could go a long way to making sure online education gets the respect it deserves.