Catching a Cheater Online

What happens after a group of teachers notice a student trying to cheat via Craigslist
Teacher McKinley/flickr

For the past month, about a hundred college professors have been embroiled in an online sting operation. It all started with a Seattle Craigslist ad:

Are you good with college level math? I need a taller college aged brunette female student to take a math placement test for me in person as I am out of state currently. If you believe that you can be of help please respond to this ad and let me know your math qualifications. Must know college level math. Willing to pay a neg fee. This could turn into more work in the near future if interested. Serious inquiries only as I need this done ASAP! Thank you!

The teachers, who all belong to a private Facebook teaching group, were not shocked by the fact that students might be cheating in their courses. They already knew that. They were shocked by the brazen nature of this student’s attempts to hire someone to cheat for her. J.C., one of the professors, who happens to be a tallish, brunette, English professor in Seattle, contacted the student using a pseudonym to dig around for more information. The student replied, saying she needed someone to help her get a place in a college-level online math class by taking the ACT Compass exam in person at a local testing center, and once she’d placed into the appropriate math class, possibly take the online course for her:

I need to place into college level so pre-calculus or intro to statistics or maybe a different one just depending on what other classes I need. Have you taken online classes before? The placement test is computerized but you do have to take it on campus, but there might be a way to do it at a testing center instead but I would have to check on this. They let you retake it twice if needed. It is called the Compass. I just need to take it sometime this month or next just by the beg [sic] of April. Let me know your thoughts. Thank you!

According to the National Center for Education statistics, 5.5 million students took at least one online course in 2012. That number is increasing rapidly as massive open online courses are offered by more universities and gain in popularity among students. Universities are scrambling to keep up with the novel methods students have found to cheat on these courses. Given that online courses do not require face-to-face student-teacher interactions, colleges have had to resort to all sorts of other safeguards in order to prevent academic dishonesty. Schools are using signature-tracking services and software that identifies a student’s typing speed and style, thereby preventing someone else from typing on a students’ behalf.

While these technological safeguards may help catch cheaters, Kimberly Williams, a teaching support specialist at Cornell and longtime professor of education, points out that the key to preventing cheating in the first place, lies in the teaching itself.  “We need to make sure what we teach is meaningful to students so that they actually want to learn it or see value in their own learning of it,” she said. “If they don't, then we're sunk and they are wasting their time anyway. It is a wake-up call for higher education that we need to teach better and in more meaningful ways so that learners want to learn.”

As J.C. and Christina exchanged emails in preparation for the test (or at least the false assumption that J.C. would be taking the test), J.C. posted updates in the Facebook group. The sting operation became a central preoccupation of these teachers’ lives. Many of the teachers saw this exchange as an opportunity to get inside the mind of a cheater and understand the mindset of all the other students who cheat in their classes. Others yearned for the opportunity to catch even one student in the act. Many followed the saga for the vicarious thrill of the chase. One professor commented, “I don’t know what this says about me, but this is the most exciting thing I’ve seen since my first child was born eight years ago.” 

J.C. asked the vice president of student services at her college what the penalties are for students who attempt to cheat on placement exams, and go on to pay someone to take the class for them. The VP replied that the student would receive a written warning, with the possibility of academic probation, followed by reprimand, probation, suspension, and finally, expulsion. However, as colleges do not share information on students, this student could simply take her course at another school if she were expelled. 

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her website, and is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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