Cheating in the Virtual Classroom
By Weston Ochse © 2011
I recently read an article called The Shadow Scholar. When originally published in November 2010 it was anonymously ascribed and detailed one man’s accounts of his contributions to America’s institutions of higher learning. Now given a pseudonym because of a book deal on the matter, Ed Dante admits to writing other people’s term papers for a living.
In addition to 5,000 papers over the last few years—“I've written toward a master's degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I've worked on bachelor's degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I've written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I've attended three dozen online universities. I've completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.”
The article was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Reading it, I find it difficult to raise my ire to an acceptable level. Sure it’s bad to cheat. That there are so many illiterate graduates out there is egregious. But isn’t he a symptom of a problem, rather than the creator of one. Dante states that he wrote the article to stimulate conversation and perhaps a debate about the mechanisms by which we judge the success or failure of our curriculum.
So where is the failure? Does it lay in our inability to monitor students’ work in a virtual university environment? Are we applying a two-hundred year old rubric to a modern problem set? What about those English as a Second Language students who are capable of creating advanced quantum mechanical equations, but cannot form enough perfect English sentences to complete a cogent thesis: is the thesis then a measure of their knowledge or a measure of their English?
These are all good questions I don’t have an answer for. I do think that a person shouldn’t be penalized in this modern age for their inability to speak a local language, unless that language is critical to the performance of the degree. Perhaps in this case a new university paradigm can be created wherein students can attend in their native language, be graded in their native language, and still receive the same degree. This should be especially the case for the sciences. How much invention are we stifling because of the unnecessary need to conjugate words in someone else’s language?
I finished an online Master of Fine Arts a few years ago. I attended National University. They probably have a rigorous method of detecting cheating, but the very nature of my creative writing degree precluded even an attempt on my part of cheating, so whatever they did, it was invisible to me. Still, in conducting research, I noted those times when I could have taken shortcuts, cheated, even made up things more erudite than I was able to find. But I didn’t. Then again, I didn’t have to.
But there are those who do find it necessary to cheat, and when they do, there are people like Mr. Dante out there to service their needs. So I ask again, what should we think about this? How would you approach solving this problem?
I noted that the pseudonym Ed Dante comes from Alexander Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo character, Edmund Dante. The book is the tale of a man unjustly imprisoned, who eventually escapes, and brings down those involved in the imprisoning. Perhaps this is a bit overly dramatic. I for one would have used the pseudonym Bartelby the Scrivener. At least he copied things for a living. I suppose he just didn't render the appropriately heroic figure.