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Academic Honor Codes and Online Learning

Unfortunately, cheating and plagiarism are neither new problems, nor limited to one segment of education. A decade ago college president Michael Heberling acknowledged “it is assumed that cheating and plagiarism are a greater problem online than in a traditional class. In reality, maintaining academic integrity is equally challenging in both delivery modes.”

When learners enrolled in one of Coursera’s free, non-credit online courses were recently found to be plagiarizing, the issue of honor codes was brought to the surface. Honor codes are just one part of the solution, but an important one for students to understand.

The Basics

In the most simplistic form, an honor code states the expectations the school has for you as you complete your academic work. It brings awareness of what is acceptable and unacceptable, and may include general guidelines as well as detailed definitions of what is considered cheating. Honor codes, and your digital or physical signature, also document your agreement to abide by the established rules.

A 2008 survey of online education programs and institutions conducted by WCET [PDF] found that students are informed about academic integrity policies in multiple ways, such as in course syllabi, on program or school websites, and in course catalogs. While these pledges may be similar for online and on-ground programs, as an online student you could see a few tweaks to specifically address issues related to technology, such as, maintaining only one user account and not giving anyone else access to your account information (i.e., username and password).

It’s interesting to note that at the time of the WCET study only 11% of respondents indicated that “online students sign acknowledgement that they have read and understand the policy.” This is changing, however, and there may even be a test that verifies your acknowledgement. Take a look at James Madison University’s Honor Code Tutorial and Test, which is required for all of their new students.

Do Honor Codes Make a Difference?

Research conducted by Ohio University-Zanesville (OU) professors in 2011 found “that an honor code had no effect on self-reported cheating” in fully online and asynchronous sections of a psychology course. Students who signed the code reported similar levels of cheating as those who weren’t required to sign them.

It did however make a difference with students who were enrolled in blended learning sections of the course, where “an honor code did reduce self-reported cheating.” In these sections, students worked online and in traditional classrooms with classmates and instructors, and those who signed the code reported fewer incidents of cheating than those who hadn’t signed. The OU researchers concluded that building “social connections” between students and instructors may make a difference in the impact an honor code has on student work.

Know the Expectations of Your Institution

Honor codes go by many names, such as Code of Conduct, Code of Ethics, Rules for Conduct, Honesty Policy, and Academic Standards of Conduct, just to name a few. What are your school’s policies and procedures related to academic behavior? The course catalog and course syllabi are good places to start, but you should ask your instructors to clarify any guidelines you find confusing or vague. Don’t make assumptions that may be problematic later on, or wait to be corrected. Here are a few questions you might consider:

  • Is it okay to help other students with “homework” or assignment questions? In some instances this may be encouraged, especially as part of group assignments, but in others it may me considered cheating.
  • Can you show your work to other students? Sometimes it’s helpful to get another student’s opinion, but depending on your school’s code and/or the expectations of your instructor, this could also be considered cheating.
  • Where can you find more information and examples? Your school may have helpful resource collections available that include tutorials, websites, and quick-guides on relevant topics such as copyright and reference citation. The University of Southern Mississippi’s Plagiarism Tutorial, University of Texas’ Copyright Crash Course, and Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab are great examples of what you’ll find.

It’s critical for you to do more than just sign the pledge or check the box to acknowledge having read it. And it’s up to you to make sure you understand your school’s policies and uphold your obligations as part of the larger learning community.

Have you signed an honor code as part of your online program? Share your thoughts on what it means to you and how it may or may not impact how you approach your course work.

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