So far, the schools have been slow to clamp down on online identity fraud—both academic and financial. A cynic could argue that a lack of enthusiasm to stop online identity fraud in education may be related to financial benefit. Online classes, degrees, and certifications are less costly to provide than traditional methods; a 2012 report by the Thomas B. Fordham institute estimated that colleges save more than 40 percent when they move classes online. Indeed, the cost savings are a key selling point of those encouraging a move from having students show up to simply asking them to log in.
“What online classes do is cut out the prohibitive expense of education,” says a post on No Need to Study’s blog. “It’s expensive to build a school and find qualified teachers… It’s far less expensive to develop an online course, and it can have the exact same effect.”
But lower production costs are just half the economic equation. There are also far more potential customers/students online than on campus. And because taking classes online can be less expensive and more convenient than on campus options, student interest is high. While higher-education enrollment has hit a plateau or even dipped in the past five years, participation in online college education continues to increase, up by more than 570,000 last year.
Lower production costs and more customers, even at a reduced price points for tuition, can create massive profit. Take Walmart. This one-two punch of lower delivery costs and higher student interest could be a powerful motivation to keep online education growing, in spite of problems like the ease and costs of online cheating. In at least this way, it seems both the schools and the cheating providers have a similar economic incentive—they may both profit by having more online students.
But the financial benefits spurring its growth aren’t the only impediments to stopping the online cheating. Experts say there’s no way to stop the cheating providers directly. “You can sell anything online if you have a basic knowledge of search engine optimization,” Adam Fridman, founder of the Chicago digital marketing firm Mabbly, told me. Mabbly specializes in helping people get their businesses listed high up in search results. “There’s no one checking what you’re selling, who you’re selling to or who your customers are. That’s an amazing competitive opportunity but it unfortunately leaves the door open for some less legitimate uses.” In addition, few people want the responsibility of deciding which “tutoring” services are legitimate aids to learning and which are outright cheats.
But the fight isn’t hopeless. There are steps colleges and online education companies can take to cut down on online impersonation. Infusing online courses with more direct engagement between teacher and student—using video technology, for example—can help. “One way to reduce identity spoofing in online education is to embrace tools like video chat which is both unspoofable and creates a documentary record,” said Steve Gottlieb, founder of the online video engagement system, Shindig. “The more schools and their technology partners can integrate face-to-face engagements online, the more online cheating will become impossible."