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MOOC Teaches How to Cheat in Online Courses, With Eye to Prevention

In a few weeks, Bernard Bull, assistant vice president for academics at Concordia University Wisconsin, will ask participants in his new course to cheat.

There’s a caveat, though. They’ll have to disclose to the rest of the class exactly how they cheated. “Of course, if the assignment is to cheat, then you’re not really cheating,” Mr. Bull admitted.

The assignment will be one unit in his new massive open online course, “Understanding Cheating in Online Courses,” which begins on Monday through the Canvas MOOC platform, run by Instructure, a course-management company. The eight-week course will explore the vocabulary, psychology, and mechanics of what he calls “successful cheating” in online learning.

Mr. Bull said he had been studying issues of cyberethics since the start of the last decade. When he began teaching, he noticed how often student cheating came up in discussions among professors.

“They are concerned about these issues,” Mr. Bull said of professors he’s talked to. “They think through this quite a bit as a faculty, and it became a topic that was always on my mind.”

For two years he conducted research on cheating, focusing not on those who get caught but those who get away with it. At the end of his study, he found his views on cheating had begun to shift. It wasn’t as black and white as he originally thought. Were some courses designed in a way for which cheating seemed the best option? Could professors do more to not just detect cheating but help create an environment where it doesn’t happen in the first place?

Those were questions he thought other people would be interested in exploring with him through a MOOC, Mr. Bull said. Cheating in online education remains a concern for many instructors and institutions, with some universities hiring online-proctoring companies to monitor students through Webcams. Others require students to take examinations at a physical testing site.

Mr. Bull’s MOOC quickly reached its cap of 1,000 participants, and he said he expects most of them will be university educators.

“I hope that the course helps us realize that we all play a role in helping reduce this,” he said. “It’s not just students’ changing their behaviors but all of us learning how to redesign learning environments.”

The start of the course will cover the basic vocabulary and different types of cheating. The course will then move into discussing the differences between online and face-to-face learning, and the philosophy and psychology behind academic integrity. One unit will examine the best practices to minimize cheating.

Another unit will explore the kinds of metaphors people use to describe cheating. “Words and phrases like ‘punishment,’ ‘getting caught,’ all those words connect to this crime metaphor,” Mr. Bull said. ”Are there other metaphors we can use? It doesn’t mean we think cheating is OK, but it may give us more insight and perspective.”

For each unit completed, participants will get a digital badge, including, yes, one that denotes they are successful cheaters. But if a student has signed up for the course hoping for some quick cheating tips to use on his next online physics quiz, he is likely to be disappointed, Mr. Bull said, as most successful cheating tactics are well known and fairly low tech.

“It’s meeting at Starbucks and taking a quiz together, or texting a friend,” he said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out.”

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