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On Becoming an Online Student

“We’ll take your online class for you! … Guaranteed grades or your money back.”

Have you seen these websites? From term papers to test questions, they market services that promise good grades with no work. These sites aren’t new, and while there are strategies that can be used to deter this type of cheating, the news is full of examples of how it’s not only happening, but may be on the increase, at a wide variety of institutions.

So last week when I saw a link for a company claiming they’ll take an entire online class for you (for an undisclosed fee of course) I was disgusted, but not completely surprised. From the perspective of an instructional designer and online instructor, it’s easy to see where this kind of service would not only be popular, but also, unfortunately, feasible.

The pressure is on in a time of economic recession to be more competitive at work, be eligible for advancement and promotion, and prepare for career change. Adult learners often choose online programs for the “any time, any place” convenience factors that allow them to meet obligations related to work, family, and school. Online learning options can fit the bill, but also demand much more of the student who is trying to do it all. Increased demands may lead to poor choices.

The Web link in question has been making the rounds on Google+ and Facebook as friends and colleagues in my network weigh in on what this might mean, especially in terms of the big-picture for online education. Some are even wondering if it’s a parody. Whether it’s real or not, my intent is not to add to the attention these sites are getting, but to make you, the online student, aware that you take on responsibilities you may not realize when you enroll in an academic program. The benefits and quality levels of these programs are being debated and your actions help to frame the potential of online learning and it’s future role in higher education.

Expectations of Enrollment

There are multiple perspectives to take into account when looking at the issues of cheating and plagiarism in online education. What roles do the expectations of students, institutions, and employers play?

  • Students: Distance learners often uncover some of the myths of online learning in their first classes. The reality is that these courses often take more time to complete, are not easy alternatives to their traditional counterparts, and require active participation. The unexpected demands of online courses may send some students in search of quick, and inappropriate, solutions to meeting deadlines.
  • Colleges and Universities: Individual Institutions have expectations as well, and established policies and procedures for completing academic assignments. Honor codes are one way to ask students to commit to doing their own work. New technologies, such as video test proctoring, are being developed to help counter the problem of cheating and to help schools ensure that the students who are graduating and representing the school as alumni are the ones who met the requirements and demonstrated their learning achievements.
  • Employers: Employers funding your education or hiring you because of your academic credentials have expectations that you have done the coursework. They are expecting you to emerge from your online program with the skills and knowledge they were designed to foster.

Ethically Speaking

The issues surrounding cheating and plagiarism beg a lot of questions on moral and ethical, and potentially legal grounds. What are the ramifications of paying someone to do your course work? While outsourcing may be a common practice in business, it’s wholly different subject in an academic environment.

The rewards or satisfaction that may be gained from paying tuition, and fees to a third party for assignment completion, will likely be short-lived, as it becomes evident to employers that while their new employees may have the required credentials, they emerged without the skills and competencies needed in the workplace. Those who haven’t achieved the learning outcomes in their courses enter the work force poorly prepared, and affect their own professional reputations, as well as those of their schools and online education in general.

This may be the most frustrating aspect for me when I see ads for services like those I described earlier in this post. The presence of these services and their ability to find a market take away from all the work being done to develop and deliver high quality educational experiences at a range of online programs offered by all types of institutions. They diminish the fact that many programs provide a solid alternative to traditional classrooms. The positive work is often overshadowed by the negative.

Student Support Services are Available

Having trouble taking tests? Not sure if you’re going to be able to complete your assignments on time? Confused about where to start with a research paper? These are just a few of the reasons you might think about cheating, and all can be addressed through formal resources and support professionals working at your school. Instructors, advisors, counselors, and librarians are among the team that has been assembled to support you as an online student. Reach out to accept their offers of assistance and let them know when you need help.

Embrace the experience and make the best of it when times get hard, because there will be those courses that test your abilities and patience, leading you to consider other options. As you move forward with your career goals through online learning, make a decision to commit to your courses, take new skills into the workplace, and better the perception others may have of your program and school. There is value to the journey ahead.

Image credit: ASurroca, Flickr, CC:BY-ND