No one’s looking. (Unless you forgot to turn off your webcam). Maybe that’s why.
Maybe it’s the impersonal, detached, remote nature of digital education that allows students to bend the usual ethical boundaries. Take students out of a classroom and put them in front of a computer and they cheat. Or at least they cheat more often.
A study last year by two psychology professors from the University of Ohio at Zanesville found that 72 percent of students taking online courses admitted cheating on their tests.
Last month, Harvard University was investigating how it could be that the test results submitted by 125 students – out of 279 in the class – were virtually (so to speak) identical, down to even a wrong answer and a typo. But it was a take-home test. In the age of copy-and-paste, it was just too easy. (In the students’ defense, the course material itself — Government 1310: Introduction to Congress — might have contributed to their ethical lapse.)
Because they were Harvard kids, a rather common incident was pumped up into a national scandal. The prestige of the school comes with the assumption that they’re so smart, students there have no reason to cheat. Especially on some whiff course. Government 1310 ain’t calculus.
Harvard’s hardly the first university to grapple with an online cheating scandal. Digital plagiarism has become so epidemic that universities provide professors with software to sort out filched term papers. In the last few years, there have been online test scandals at Indiana University’s dental school. And at the University of Virginia grad school for economics. In 2007, 61 Florida State University athletes were nabbed cheating on an online test. It was a music class. Designed for jocks to take home an easy grade. Yet they cheated.
Maybe when it’s an on-line class, it just doesn’t feel like cheating.
A Duquesne University study published this month in the Journal of Business Ethics entitled Moral Reasoning in Computer-Based Task Environments: Exploring the Interplay between Cognitive and Technological Factors on Individuals’ Propensity to Break Rules found, well, just that. “Results demonstrate the significant role of technology in enabling negative behavior and the relative inability of subjects’ use of principled moral reasoning to overcome it.” One of the study’s authors, Professor Jeffrey Alan Roberts, told me Monday that social scientists have been noticing that rogue online behavior doesn’t just pertain to academics. He mentioned “aggressive, flaming” e-mails coming from folks who would never indulge in that kind of behavior in face-to-face communications. (My own e-mail basket offers all the proof he’d need to sustain that particular thesis.)
Roberts wondered whether “science has outpaced the ability of society to adapt.” He said, “The technology is here now. It’s immediately available. But it takes years, generations, to adopt moral standards.”
Florida may need its own crash course in online ethics. Public high school students must now take at least one virtual class to graduate. And online for-profit education companies and the Florida Department of Education are pushing hard for all-on-line virtual charter schools, with no brick, no mortar, no face-to-face instruction. School districts haven’t been so enthused but so far at least nine virtual schools have been approved. With more, many more, coming. Like it or not, Florida school districts are plunging into a huge experiment in both remote learning and detached ethics.
K12, the nation’s largest on-line education operator, led the daunting lobbying effort for all-virtual schools in Florida. This was the same company that has been accused of using uncertified teachers to handled online classes in Seminole County, then pressuring certified instructors to sign the rosters as if they had taught the classes.
The accusation prompted an investigation and raised questions about K12’s corporate ethics. But maybe, in the brave new world of virtual education, it just didn’t feel like cheating.