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Will Online Classes Become the New Front in College Cheating?

Online college class enrollment more than doubled over the last decade, and there’s lots of evidence it’s far easier to cheat in an online class than in person. An incident in Newport Beach, Calif., shows just how easy.

online learning
(TNS) — For months, the nationwide college cheating scandal had been about rich parents, including Silicon Valley executives and Hollywood actresses, buying their children’s way into elite universities. This week, there was a twist: A mom charged with buying her son’s way out of a coveted school — with a college degree.

The case of Newport Beach socialite Karen Littlefair paying $9,000 for a surrogate to complete online courses for her son has exposed another university fraud control weakness as well as what experts have argued is a particular vulnerability in the surging realm of remote online learning.

“There’s lots of evidence it’s far easier to cheat in an online class than in person,” said education technology writer Derek Newton, an expert on online college class cheating who wrote about the topic recently for Forbes. “Part of the reason is simply because of the distance between professor and student — in many if not most cases, the teacher never physically sees the student.”

Online college class enrollment more than doubled over the last decade, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2007-08, 20.6 percent of undergraduate students took some classes online, and 3.8 percent did all their course work through “distance education.” By 2015-16, those numbers jumped to 43.1 percent taking some classes and 10.8 percent taking all classes online. Since 2013, the University of California has increased the number of online undergraduate courses from fewer than 50 to more than 1,000.

Attorneys following the college scandal orchestrated by California admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer say they wouldn’t be surprised to see other parents charged in similar online class cheating scams.

“If he’s done it for one, I’m sure he’s done it for more,” said Los Angeles lawyer Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor who tried drug and fraud cases when he was in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego from 2010 to 2012. “Parents who have worked with Singer should absolutely be concerned. He’s clearly outed everyone, and has the documentation.”

Prosecutors say that starting in 2017, Littlefair conspired with Singer to pay for a woman to take three Georgetown University online courses on behalf of Littlefair’s son. The surrogate even had a male colleague stand in for Littlefair’s son in video conferences with the professor. She then took another online course for him through Arizona State University last spring to earn his final credits needed to graduate.

In email correspondence with Singer and his associates, prosecutors said, Littlefair demanded a discount for the last class because the surrogate only earned her son a C grade “and the experience was a nightmare!” Singer denied the discount and replied that the “process was a nightmare for all.”

Even so, the son graduated from Georgetown last May, prosecutors said. Littlefair has since agreed to plead guilty to fraud in a deal that would send her to prison for four months, which would be among the longer sentences in the case for parents who have pleaded guilty.

The “Varsity Blues” case first announced in March originally involved 50 defendants, including Singer, who pleaded guilty and has cooperated with investigators. Among them were Singer’s employees and associates, 13 coaches and 33 parents, including actresses Felicity Huffman, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two weeks in prison, and Lori Loughlin, who is fighting the charges. A few others have been charged since.

With the exception of Littlefair, the parents were accused of paying Singer to have a proxy take entrance exams for their kids to boost their scores, or bribing university coaches to flag them for admission through the “side door” as athletic recruits, though they had no legitimate sports credentials. Some accused parents paid for both schemes. Nineteen parents have pleaded guilty and sixteen others are fighting the charges.

Georgetown, a Jesuit university in Washington, D.C., has figured highly in the college scandal, which also involved students at the University of Southern California, Stanford, UCLA, Yale and other elite schools. Georgetown earlier this year announced it had expelled two students found to have submitted false information in the admission process.

After Littlefair was charged, Georgetown said it “will investigate and adjudicate the case and may recommend sanctions up to and including the revocation of the student’s degree.”

Georgetown also said the case “informed several policy changes underway for online coursework.” Those measures include “enhanced student learning data to help identify potentially inappropriate behavior” and “anti-plagiarism technologies.”

There has been conflicting research on whether students actually cheat more online than in person. Melanie N. Clay, executive director of extended learning at the University of West Georgia and editor of the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, said: “cheating can and does occur in both traditional and online environments.”

“There is no perfect system,” Clay said.

Jason M. Ruckert, vice chancellor and chief digital learning officer at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, said in some ways, technology gives online courses an edge in defeating cheaters. Software can track locations where students log in, learn to recognize a student’s keystroke patterns and check for plagiarism by scanning other published reports.

“I believe identifying a student cheating in an online classroom might be easier than doing so in a large face-to-face course,” Ruckert said.

UC spokesman Andrew Gordon said that the system checks “VPN addresses” of its students enrolled online “to ensure that the individuals submitting assignments and taking exams are the students who are enrolled.”

But Newton said those measures aren’t always employed and don’t always work.

“There are tools that can prevent this or make it more likely you’ll get caught,” Newton said, “but if you hire somebody to take classes for you and the URL is always the same, whether it’s in Liberia or San Jose, those things won’t catch it.”

Schools and companies that make anti-cheating software for them are, Newton said, in a constant arms race with “essay mills” that sell work to students and develop workarounds.

Clay acknowledged that “a more difficult problem to detect” in either online or traditional classes is “when students pay others to write original papers for them.”

Newton said administrators are far more confident than their teachers that online cheating isn’t rampant.

“Deans and presidents will tell you cheating just doesn’t happen and their standards are rigorous and that’s just nonsense,” Newton said. “The professors I speak to will tell you, ‘Yeah it’s fairly common.'”

But as with the admissions system, schools tend to rely on the honor system and the threat that cheaters will face serious consequences. Arizona State would only say about the latest case that it “investigates all allegations of academic dishonesty that it receives.”

The most effective measures to defeat cheaters, Newton said, are having incentives for teachers to catch cheaters, severely punishing those who are caught, regularly updating anti-cheating software and using video to establish a personal recognition between the teacher and student. But he added that universities see online classes as cash cows and aren’t motivated to employ costly measures to counter cheating.

“We don’t even have a comprehensive sense of how broad the problem is,” Newton said. “I think they’re just afraid of the answer because they don’t have a good solution.”

©2019 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.