How do you stop online students cheating?

A colleague recently referred me to an article written by Sean Coughlan, the BBC News Education Correspondent, entitled ‘How do you stop online students cheating?’ In this article Coughlan discusses the growing trend for online learning and the steps that some institutions are taking to ensure that students engaged in online assessment are not cheating. These include:

  • students undertaking exams under webcam supervision
  • a software that profiles students’ key strokes and syntax to ensure it really is the right person undertaking an online examination
  • global examination centres where students attend for examinations (kind of defeats the purpose of distance learning don’t you think?).

My concern is our preoccupation with the idea that assessment involves examination. But what does an examination test exactly: a student’s ability to recall information; a student’s ability to commit facts and figures to memory? In the current education environment that prides itself on developing ‘transferable skills’, ‘employability’ and a passion for ‘lifelong learning’ should we really be so focussed on examinations? Shouldn’t we be thinking more creatively about how students learning online can, for example, be assessed on their ability to apply their learning, work with geographically dispersed teams and formulate an argument and communicate it?

Online assessment could take on the shape of any of the following:

  • Students could be asked to work individually or in small teams to prepare a page to be added to an online wiki. Suggested key headings or a template page would ensure that the research they undertake covers all relevant areas. A deadline would be given for submission. Once all submissions are made, students could then be asked to review critically one or more contributions from others. Marks could be assigned for the submitted wiki contribution. If working in teams, students could be asked to grade the contributions of others in their team, to ensure that everyone pulls their weight. An additional mark would be given for the reviews of the work of others. This type of assessment would test a student’s level of knowledge and understanding and IT skills as well as their ability to locate and use information relevant to their subject, manage their time to make a submission before deadline and work and communicate effectively with others.
  • Students could be asked to make a subject-relevant contribution to an online journal club, along with a personal review of the article. A level of understanding of the topic would be required to select a suitable article, but the review would require students to think critically, formulate arguments and communicate well about their subject. For an added layer, students could again be asked to review another’s work. Marks could be awarded for the suitability of the article, the quality of the written review and the comments provided to others.
  • Students could be asked to contribute a five-minute audio podcast to a larger ‘audio magazine’ type project on a subject of your choosing. They could select a format from an audio report, an audio interview, an audio game show type format, a radio drama format or any other creative idea they may come up with in consultation with you. These days audio files can be easily created using smart phones or other readily accessible devices. If students want to edit their audio files, free software like Audacity is readily available. Once all contributions are made, they could be collectively edited into an audio magazine podcast that could be used as a future student resource or even a public engagement tool. The audio file could be submitted along with a report outlining why the format and content were chosen. A reflection could also be requested on what the student might like to have done differently. This activity engages students in disseminating their learning via verbal and written communication methods. It also engages them in reflective practice, which will be beneficial to their future development. Marks could be divided between the audio contribution and the report.

Of course these ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. Assessment can be a very creative process with which students are more likely to engage and benefit from in the long run. And the added benefit of all these assessments is that they can be a resource for future cohorts of students.

This type of assessment that takes place over a period of time also means that cheating becomes more transparent. An online tutor or lecturer who is actively engaged with their students, via such methods as email, online fora and video conferencing, is able to see the evolution of a student’s ideas towards a piece of work. This makes it much easier to deduce whether a student has been engaged in any kind of academic misconduct.

The role of unmarked formative assessment in identifying academic misconduct should also not be underestimated. Formative online assessment provides students with the opportunity to test their understanding of facets of their learning. In addition, if the results are being gathered by the virtual learning environment, the online tutor or lecturer is also aware of each student’s progress. This provides the tutor or lecturer with the opportunity to intervene prior to marked assessment, but also gives them an indication of the student’s ongoing ability in the lead up to a summative assessment piece. Indeed, adding in compulsory but unmarked formative assessments as stepping stones to a summative marked assessment makes this even more likely. If a student who has struggled all along and did not make use of support turns in an outstanding piece of summative work, it might be time to look for other indicators of academic malpractice.

I would be very interested to hear your thoughts about online assessment and cheating and hope that you will share them via a comment. The list of potential online assessments I have given above is obviously far from exhaustive and I would welcome you posting some of the assessment ideas you have seen or used in the comment facility.



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Can the UK secure its place in the global distance learning market?

In 2000, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) published ‘Quality On the Line: Benchmarks for success in internet-based distance education’. In summary, the institute indicated that online distance learning could indeed be a quality learning experience and identified 24 benchmarks that they found to be essential to ensuring excellence. The benchmarks were grouped by the following seven themes and covered the areas indicated in brackets:

  • institutional support benchmarks (i.e. a reliable technology delivery system and centralised systems for the creation and maintenance of distance education infrastructures)
  • course development benchmarks (i.e. guidelines for minimum standards in course development, design and delivery)
  • teaching and learning benchmarks (i.e. student instruction in scholarly skills, student interaction, and timely and constructive feedback)
  • course structure benchmarks (i.e. access to library resources, explicit learning outcomes and management of student expectations)
  • student support benchmarks (i.e. study skills advice, access to technical assistance, student support services)
  • faculty support benchmarks (i.e. technical support to develop courses, training and peer mentoring for educators)
  • evaluation and assessment benchmarks (i.e. collecting comprehensive enrolment data and monitoring the course’s educational effectiveness).

A recent report by the BBC (2012) would suggest that a number of high calibre US universities are embracing distance learning. So why are so many UK universities lagging behind when distance learning has enormous potential for education, widening participation and business development and there has been evidence such as the IHEP report for how to develop quality distance learning for some time? When UK universities are grappling to find new income streams after significant government funding cuts, distance learning is open to the global market. But how do UK universities that are just dabbling in distance learning intend to compete with the likes of the innovative EdX collaboration between Harvard and MIT who have a clear strategy and are producing quality distance learning?

In my opinion, UK universities need to decide whether they want a part of the US $36 billion market (Worlock, 2011)  or not. If they do, then they need to invest in the infrastructures that will enable them to address the benchmarks outlined above and develop ‘quality’ distance learning that will compete on the global market. And they need to do it swiftly, before the US universities flood the market.

With the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web and the growing demand for lifelong learning, the educational landscape has changed forever. I personally think that distance learning is the way forward, but as a distance learning enthusiast I guess I would say that. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.


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Are aesthetics important?

On a number of occassions I have been drawn into discussions about the importance (or not, depending on your position) of the aesthetic design of an online distance learning course. Traditionalists might argue that it doesn’t matter how the course is presented as long as the content is of a high quality. It is unquestionable that clear up-to-date evidence-based content is the foundation of a good distance learning course. However, some of the literature would suggest that the aesthetic design of a distance learning course can have a significant impact on a student’s satisfaction and performance.

Parrish (2005) argues that aesthetic design in education promotes engagement with learning. Subconsciously decoding the aesthetics, as we might art or music, prompts a unique emotional response in an individual and this emotional response impacts on their perception of the learning and therefore impacts on the level with which they choose to engage with the learning. He goes on to suggest that if the creators of online learning ignore aesthetic design, they ‘risk promoting practice that could lead to un-engaging, and therefore ineffective, products’ (p. 7).

Miller (2011) reports on a randomised control trial where students were divided into two groups: one group conducted an assessment in an online environment where little consideration had been given to the aesthetic design while the other group conducted the assessment in an online area that had undergone aesthetic design. The findings were that ‘aesthetic design significantly decreased participant cognitive load and increased participant satisfaction, willingness to continue to use, volutary self-assessment time, and task performance’ (p.307). Qualitative data indicated that students using the non-aesthetic assessment felt stressed and rushed, whereas students using the aesthetic assessment did not experience this and also indicated that they felt the design encouraged concentration and motivated them.

Of course, in addition to the academic arguments for aesthetics in online learning, aesthetics also play a big role in the branding of distance learning courses. The use of certain ‘corporate colours’, navigational templates and icons can enhance the learning experience, but also become key identifiers that a distance learning course is associated with a particular organisation. This can impact on re-enrolment of students on further distance learning courses within an organisation – once a student is comfortable with the particular distance learning house style they are more likely to choose that organisation as their place for ongoing distance learning education.

I would be very interested to hear your thoughts and opinions on the importance of aesthetics in distance learning and hope that you will leave a comment.

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Using technology to enhance student interaction

It could be suggested that there are three core components to a distance learning course: content, interaction and assessment. Historically, content and assessment have been managed well from a distance. However, interaction – with other students and educators – has proved problematic and, it could be argued, is the reason why distance learning is often perceived as being anonymous, unsupportedless and generally less than the face-to-face experience. The recent advent of Web 2.0 technologies, such as social networking sites, blogs, wikis and video-sharing sites, has opened the door to new ways of interacting in distance learning courses.

The online forum is probably one of the most established interaction tools used in distance learning – quite often the facility is built in to the virtual learning environment. When used for focused community discussion, this technology is often considered substandard when compared to class discussions, however Swan (2001) highlights the benefits:

  • all students have a voice
  • no one student can dominate the discussion
  • asynchronous discussion allows students time to reflect on their contributions as well as the contributions of others.
  • develops a culture of critical thinking
  • develops students’ writing skills.

‘Blog’ is the abbreviated term for ‘web log’ – an online log. Blogs can be used as a forum for debate. For example, an ethics course might use a blog to post ethical scenarios on which students can make comments. To add an additional layer to this activity it would be interesting to ask students to undertake an online poll relating to the scenario before the online comments start to roll in and after to see if there is a shift in thinking as a result of the comments. Blogs can also be used for journal clubbing, in a similar way to this blog. You might post a link to a journal article and ask students to comment. If you give blog authoring rights to the entire group they could also add their own reading suggestions as posts. In this way, the journal club could become a collaborative exercise. A student could also use a blog to document their reflections on their practice. Blogs enable students to develop their writing skills and often, because they are writing, students post a more thoughful response.

Wikis are merely online resources that are built collaboratively – the most well-known is Wikipedia. Students could individually or in groups be asked to research a particular subject and make a contribution to a wiki for assessment. These contributions could then be opened up to peer review, which might be an additional component of the assessment. Students could also be asked to develop a wiki of useful links or resources. This could be a rolling resource that is built on by students groups on an annual basis.

Podcasts are audio or video files that can be educator or student created, and with a large portion of the population having access to a smart phone that will record audio or video, this could be a growing area in distance learning. Video podcasts might be used to introduce an educator to the course group, put a personal face on case studies, demonstrate a technique. Audio podcasts might be used to provide students with feedback on their work, could be used by students to create an audio diary or could even be used as an audio glossary when learning involves complicated words that are difficult to pronounce, as is the case in health care for example.

Although I have demonstrated a handful of examples of how each of these technologies might be used, it is important to note that the technology must not determine the learning; rather, the technology must serve the learning.

In recent decades we abandoned the idea that students are empty vessels for educators to fill with learning delivered didactically in favour of the idea of educators acting as facilitators of learning. Beldarrain (2006) explores the changing role of the educator in response to the use of these technologies in distance learning and suggests that ‘Besides being a resource manager, the future instructor may have to be more of a “partner in learning” than a facilitator. The instructor must view the students as contributors of knowledge, and thus allow them to participate in the creation of content.’

I would be very interested to hear your thoughts about the changing role of the educator since the introduction of Web 2.0 technologies into distance learning and hope that you will share them via a comment. The examples I have given above for the use of these technologies is not exhaustive and I would encourage you to share how you have used these tools in your learning.


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Understanding learning design

My previous post acknowledged that a number of UK universities that primarily teach in a face-to-face mode develop distance learning as a cottage industry. It is often the case that distance learning is developed in a manner that adheres to traditional teaching models, in which the educator researches the area, develops the curriculum, delivers the learning and performs the assessment. This practice is expensive, inefficient, time consuming for academics who are increasingly time poor and does not always result in the best learning product.

David Sewart (2010) suggested that the development of distance learning should be more akin to an industrialised process. Let’s consider distance learning development as similar to a car going through a manufacturing process. The car chassis is placed on a conveyor that then moves from area to area in order for different components to be added until there is a final product for testing and delivery. Each person who works a particular area is an expert in their area and is consequently quick and good at what they do. The development of distance learning is done effectively in a similar way in many institutions around the world. The educator provides the content for the distance learning course, this is then handed over to a learning design specialist who plans the sequencing and presentation of the content and the communication, assessment and feedback opportunities. Once this is agreed, learning technologists (assuming the course will be delivered online) then implement the technical build of the course until it is ready for developmental testing and, finally, delivery. Quality assurance processes should be built in at every opportunity and ultimately the educator should have the final ‘sign off’ of the course. This way of working has numerous benefits, including:

  • the distribution of workloads
  • rigorous education that has been peer reviewed
  • improved cost efficiency
  • ultimately a better final product.

However, this kind of working quite often involves a big shift in thinking, and a big part of this involves educating people about the roles of learning design specialists and learning technologists. An article by Clifford Omodele Fyle et al. from the Sultan Qaboos University in Oman and the University of Leicester, entitled ‘Troubles Times: The role of instructional design in a modern dual-mode university’, published in Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning in January 2012 ( [accessed 4 May 2012]), goes a long way to explaining the role of learning design and uses case studies with and without learning design to demonstrate the importance of the role in developing distance learning.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this article and the role of learning design specialists. What do you perceive to be the benefits to this kind of working? What obstacles do you think might need to be overcome in universities primarily delivering face-to-face learning?

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Are we trying to fit a square peg into a round hole?

Few universities are purpose built to deliver education solely via distance learning. The UK has a long tradition of face-to-face learning, hence the infrastructures in place in the universities accomodate that mode of delivery. Over the last 10 years, numerous UK universities have made steps towards distance learning, recognising its potential to:

  • enhance learning
  • tap into new student markets
  • help the university deal with campus capacity constraints
  • meet the growing demand for flexible learning.

But how does a university develop distance learning within an infrastructure created to deal with face-to-face learning? I recently read an article published in Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning written by Helen Lentell from the University of Leicester (UK) and entitled ‘Distance Learning in British Universities: Is it possible?’ ( [accessed 3 May 2012]). Lentell’s article addresses this precise question.

Lentell argues that distance learning in traditional universities is primarily being developed by enthusiasts who are engaged in something of a cottage industry, where one person is responsible for conceiving, developing, marketing and selling the product. She suggests this is all done by ‘trying to bend on-campus provision to fit the circumstances’ and that it is not a sustainable or cost-effective way of working (2012, p.29).

David Sewart (2010) is cited as describing distance learning as an ‘industrialised form of teaching, drawing on practices in manufacturing as well as service industries, and operating on a division of labour.’ In this way the development of distance learning involves academics, learning designers, e-learning technologists, administrators and marketers all doing what they do best to create a cost-efficient quality product. However, this kind of working calls for ‘top-level strategy and policy … to ensure systemic change that embeds distance learning into institutional policies and practices, and ensures that distance learning students are held in the same esteem as campus students’ (Lentell, 2012, 34).

I agree with Lentell that distance learning is most effective when a top-down approach is applied rather than a piecemeal bottom-up approach that leads to fragmented practices. However, numerous challenges arise from this approach, including:

  • establishing new ways or working that do not adhere to clear academic and administrative boundaries or clear faculty boundaries
  • the development of a distance learning strategy and policies that have widespread ‘buy in’
  • re-allocation of resources from traditional ways of working.

I welcome your views on this paper and hope that you will post a comment.

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Greetings fellow distance learning enthusiasts

At some point during the past 12 years I have become a distance learning enthusiast. It is true that I studied by distance learning while living in Germany, when my poor grasp of the local language procluded me from studying at a local university. It is also true that I studied by distance learning while trying to juggle a demanding managerial role and a new baby – the flexibility allowed me to study at odd hours and in odd places. (It is amazing how much you can learn during a crowded one-hour train commute when armed with a highlighter pen in one pocket and post-it notes in another while reading a text book precariously balanced on your right knee and writing notes in a notepad precariously balanced on the left knee.) However, it is also true to say that I wasn’t enthusiastic when I had an assignment due or an exam looming.

My enthusiasm has come from working in distance learning and watching how it has evolved with the rise of the World Wide Web and the Internet. It has transformed at such a rapid rate and consequently millions of people around the world who might not otherwise have been able to benefit from education because of work commitments, carer commitments, disability, financial hardship, geographical location and so on, have been able to engage in learning out of personal interest, for continuing professional development, or to obtain undergraduate or postgraduate education. Distance learning makes education ‘inclusive’ rather than ‘exclusive’ – a principle that sits well with me. I have been priviledged to attend graduation ceremonies and hear story after story of how distance learning has changed someone’s life for the better. It opens people’s minds, creates opportunities and helps earn promotions – ultimately it is life changing. It is rewarding to play a small role in this.

Although this rapid development has benefitted many, the downside is that the quality of distance learning is very varied as many new education organisations have emerged to ‘make a buck’. Universities that have engaged in quality face-to-face teaching for centuries are slow to respond to the rise of distance learning and cautious about the impact it might have on their traditional infrastructure. Although those of us who work with quality distance learning know that distance learning can be at least equal to face-to-face learning, the perception of distance learning remains varied, to the point that some graduates do not wish their degrees to say that their course was delivered via a distance in case an employer sees it as holding less value. These are just some of the challenges that those of us who work in distance learning must address.

There is a growing array of literature about distance learning available, however few have the time to wade through it all. I have created this blog to bring issues raised in the distance learning literature to the attention of distance learning enthusiasts like myself. I hope it will prompt thought, discussion and ultimately benefit distance learning, the students who undertake it and the educationalists who create and teach it.

Your comments and thoughts are always welcome.

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