We are in the midst of a heated public debate over the benefits of online education.
Yet while journalists and educators weigh in on the pros and cons of online courses, I’ve seen no mention of how online classes, which tend to be composed of large numbers of students, can lead to an increase in academic dishonesty. This past semester, I caught quite a few of my students at Cal State Northridge engaging in academic dishonesty — more so than I’ve ever seen in my 17½-year tenure at Cal State Northridge. And from what I hear, I am not the only professor on campus who is dealing with this problem.
I think that the incidents of cheating and plagiarism have increased for two interconnecting reasons: The first is the trend of packing as many students as possible into course sections as a means of saving money, and the second is the structure of the online courses themselves. It is evident that these two intertwining trends can serve to produce an academic culture rife with cheating and plagiarism.
In the wake of the Great Recession and the budget crisis that ensued, the dean of one of the colleges I teach in increased class size by as many as 50 students in an attempt to save money. One of the non-online courses I teach was intended for 32 to 35 pupils. But when I taught the course last semester, it was composed of 82 students. Faculty course loads have become so heavy that many professors find it impossible to carefully monitor
their student’s written work. Some students tell me that they haven’t written papers in years and other students have said that when they do write papers, their professors don’t seem to be reading them. All told, my students who tried to pass off professional written work as their own this past semester did not think I would carefully read their papers. And I was only able to thoroughly examine their essays, mind you, because these particular upper division classes were kept relatively small — two sections of 37 students each.
Online courses serve to exacerbate the trend toward larger class sizes. The primary motive for the increase in online courses is that they do not require physical classroom space. This allows campus administrators to cut costs by increasing the number of students enrolled in a particular course section even if they don’t have classrooms that will hold large numbers of students. Last semester I taught a double online section of 150 students with no assistance at all. Before the budget crisis, most of my double sections held 120 students, which is also a heavy course load to begin with. But to add 30 or more students to the class increases an instructor’s workload exponentially.
What’s more, when students take classes online, the professor does not have face-to-face contact with the vast majority of the students enrolled in the course. As a result, one can never be sure that the students are doing their own work for there is little to stop them from paying another student to take their exams for them.
In the end, we need to think about what it really takes to provide our students with a quality education. Are we willing to water down college degrees just to save money, or do we want to turn out students that not only understand the material central to their degrees, but are also able to write and think critically? For this to happen students need to write their own papers and take their own exams, and professors need to be in a position to carefully monitor their pupils’ academic output.
It is evident that both increased class sizes without any accompanying teaching assistance, and the structure of online courses by themselves, makes it easier for students to cheat. This not only cheapens the college degree but also makes the whole purpose of a college education meaningless.
Kristyan Kouri teaches sociology and gender and women’s studies at California State University, Northridge.