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Much of the urgency around creating a “sense of community” in online courses springs from a desire to keep online students from dropping out. But a recent paper suggests that strengthening a sense of social belonging among online students might help universities fight another problem: cheating.

In a series of experiments, researchers at Ohio University found that students in fully online psychology courses who signed an honor code promising not to cheat broke that pledge at a significantly higher rate than did students in a “blended” course that took place primarily in a classroom.

“The more distant students are, the more disconnected they feel, and the more likely it is that they’ll rationalize cheating,” Frank M. LoSchiavo, one of the authors, conjectured in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

While acknowledging the limitations inherent to a study with such a narrow sample, and the fact that motivations are particularly hard to pin down when it comes to cheating, LoSchiavo and Mark A. Shatz, both psychology professors at Ohio University's Zanesville campus, said their findings may indicate that meeting face-to-face with peers and professors confers a stronger sense of accountability among students. “Honor codes,” LoSchiavo said, “are more effective when there are [strong] social connections.”

Honor codes are not, of course, the only method of deterring cheating in online courses. The proliferation of online programs has given rise to a cottage industry of remote proctoring technology, including one product that takes periodic fingerprint readings while monitoring a student’s test-taking environment with a 360-degree camera. (A 2010 survey by the Campus Computing Project suggests that a minority of institutions authenticate the identities of online students as a rule.)

But LoSchiavo said that he and Shatz were more interested in finding out whether honor codes held any sway online. If so, then online instructors might add pledges to their arsenal of anti-cheating tools, LoSchiavo said. If not, it provides yet an intriguing contribution to the discussion about student engagement and “perceived social distance” in the online environment.

They experimented with the effectiveness of honor codes in three introductory psychology courses at Ohio University. The first course had 40 students and was completely online. These students, like those in subsequent trials, were a mix of traditional-age and adult students, mostly from regional campuses in the Ohio University system. There was no honor code. Over the course of the term, the students took 14 multiple-choice quizzes with no proctoring of any kind. At the end of the term, 73 percent of the students admitted to cheating on at least one of them.

The second trial involved another fully online introductory course in the same subject. LoSchiavo and Shatz divided the class evenly into two groups of 42 students, and imposed an honor code -- posted online with the other course materials -- to one group but not the other. The students “digitally signed the code during the first week of the term, prior to completing any assignments.” The definition of cheating was the same as in the first trial: no notes, no textbooks, no Internet, no family or friends. There was no significant difference in the self-reported cheating between the two groups.

In a third trial, the professors repeated the experiment with 165 undergraduates in a “blended” course, where only 20 percent of the course was administered online and 80 percent in a traditional classroom setting. Again, they split the students into two groups: one in which they were asked to sign an honor code, and another in which they were not.

This time, when LoSchiavo and Shatz surveyed the students at the end of the term, there was a significant difference: Students who promised not to cheat were about 25 percent less likely to cheat than were those who made no such promise. Among the students who had not signed the code, 82 percent admitted to cheating.

LoSchiavo concedes that this study offers no definitive answers on the question of whether students are more likely to cheat in fully online courses. Cheating is more often than not a crime of opportunity, and containing integrity violations probably has much more to do with designing a system that limits the opportunities to cheat and gives relatively little weight to those assignments for which cheating is hardest to police.

“The bottom line is that if there are opportunities, students will cheat,” he said. “And the more opportunities they have, the more cheating there will be, and it is incumbent upon professors to put in a system that, when it’s important, cheating will be contained.”

The Ohio researchers suggested that follow-up research should explore the extent to which greater social engagement may increase the effectiveness of honor codes in online courses.

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