Life by Design

Examining Online Learning and Plagiarism

Posted on: April 8, 2011

(Cartoon thought bubble reads: ””)


With the explosion of online learning in both K-12 and higher education, there too, has been an explosion in plagiarism and cheating.   While the motivation for cheating has not changed over the years, the realization that one has cheated, especially in the digital world, has, as it is much more visible in a cyber based classroom.  Most students do not realize that by cutting and pasting text from a website into their research paper without citation represents plagiarism and cheating.

In an interesting survey of approximately 50,000 students from more than 60 universities students believe: ‘cut & paste’ plagiarism – using a sentence or two (or more) from different sources on the Internet and weaving this information together into a paper without appropriate citation – is not a serious issue. While 10 percent of students admitted to engaging in such behavior in 1999, almost 40 percent admit to doing so in the Assessment Project surveys [2002-5]. A majority of students (77%) believe such cheating is not a very serious issue (CAI research, 2005) as cited in Jocoy & DiBiase (2006).  Why has cheating become ‘not a very serious issue’?  It appears both the expectations and enforcements of facilitators/educators has fallen off.

According to Jocoy & DiBiase (2006), it is much harder to detect manually as well.  With budget cuts, shorter teacher days, higher enrollments, it seems plausible that a lot of cheating is going unnoticed.  Thankfully, plagiarism software is now available to online instructors that can check for plagiarism.  Turnitin is a good case in point.  Other methods include Google which allows instructors to track down copied phrases and online services such as EVE actually compares student papers to Web documents and/or to essay databases to find and report instances of matching text.  In their study, Jocoy & DiBiase(2006) did notice a difference in detecting instances of cheating by using digital resources.

Our authors, Palloff & Pratt (2011), discuss the importance of creating an assessment that is highly individualized.  For instance, rather than creating a multiple choice test, design the assessment so that the student has to write a personal reflection paper that demonstrates how they would apply the knowledge gained in the course to their everyday lives.  There is an argument for preparing students for the work world in such a way that collaborative research, and fact finding becomes a norm.  Right now in my son’s 7th grade class, the math teams occasionally take a group exam and each member of the team can contribute their knowledge to the exam.

As an instructor, there are several remedies than can be implemented to cut down on both plagiarism and cheating.

First of all, the instructor holds the expectation that students will not cheat and that there will be enforcements and consequences if students are caught.  The announcement of assignments being processed by Turnitin should be enough of disincentive for a student to go down that road.  More use of librarians can also be helpful, as many current students do not really understand the nature of plagiarism.

As an online instructor, examinations can be made of documents side-by-side, discussion posts can be compared to one another, unusual wording or lengthy wording that differs from the student’s ‘signature style’, and even a mix of fonts and type style in one paper are all ways that an instructor can possibly suspect cheating.  If it is suspected, it is best that the instructor addresses the issue with the student offline and explains the situation and asks for an explanation.

The online instructor has the responsibility to set the tone of this issue early on in Week Zero in the course policies of what the expectations and consequences are for cheating.

The student who cheats only cheats him or herself on really knowing the material that will benefit their life somehow in the future.  That is a real loss for that individual and needs to be prevented.

As I look to the future of online learning, I really like the idea of designing assessments that are as individualized as a student’s fingerprint.  Design the assessment so that the student is forced to engage higher level thinking skills and demonstrate metacognition.  Reflecting on one’s experiences in life or applying the content information to one’s life are excellent ways to measure learning and guarantee that the student has delivered original thinking and truly contributed something unique to the learning community of the course.


Cartoon courtesy of www.  Extracted from:  Google Images. 04/07/11

Jocoy, C., & DiBiase, D. (2006). Plagiarism by adult learners online: A case study in detection and remediation. International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning, 7(1), 1–15.

Palloff, R. & Pratt, K. (2011) Plagiarism and Cheating. Laureate Education Inc., Video Production.


9 Responses to "Examining Online Learning and Plagiarism"


I agree with you that instructors must design assignments that require learners to integrate the new learning with prior learning. It seems obvious, but the “day of the worksheet” seems slow to die.

I wonder what you see as the future of assessment in this era of collaboration. Some of the instructors using online tools such as a course-wiki are able to track information on student participation (and maybe even track student engagement). Is that the answer to the assessment question?

I think it is certainly a good possibility. There is no substitution for group collaboration done in a way that reflects individual participation. My son, in the 7th grade, already does this on big projects. For instance, in his Social Studies course, he along with 4 other students make presentations on different countries. My son, often picks the Architectural role so that he can design the buildings, temples or structures unique to that culture. Every time, the students can choose new roles. This is an interesting way to measure both skill and participation. I wish school could have been this much fun when I was growing up!

Thaks for your response.


Thanks for this real-life example! I wonder how the teacher grades your son’s collaborative work. I also wonder how he feels about the grading system, how he feels about working with his peers, etc. Maybe we can have an Elluminate session in which he educates us on “Real-Life Education”.

Thank you for this stimulating discussion!

Hi Deborah,
Nice page look and the figure you suggest that is found of the student body towards cheating from the use of not knowing they have plagiarized is startling. So what type of person would you say is the student that only uses an online statement within lets say one of our discussion periods; but tags the place of gotten information within their references at the bottom when his or her discussion is done?

Do you think they should be labeled a plagiarist and penalized or is that looked at as a norm?

Also for first time caught and labeled plagiarist students what do you think the penalty for plagiarism should be for them?


You stated that as you look to the future you like the idea of designing assessments that are as individualized as a student’s fingerprint. As a special education teacher I create unique assessments that suit the members of each of my courses. I accommodate the exams to meet the standards but guide student success by utilizing their individual strengths. In math we do not deal with plagiarism except in my Math Models course. We discuss the use of resources in our Powerpoint end of course project. Based on my observations of the high school I have taught not enough emphasis is placed on proper citation technique. Students feel a simple copy pasted web URL on a final page is enough and without all instructors working as a team to explain proper technique there philosophy in college.

There is a disconnect for many of my students educationally compared to peers. Instructors have not expected them to perform at the same level or pushed them to do accurate work. Many of my students know that minimal effort is rewarded the same for them as their peers contributing maximum effort. This learned behavior hinders their long range success by crippling them educationally. Student’s submit poor or inaccurate work to one instructor and are rewarded with a passing grade. Then the next year take a course requiring similar work and fail, they are confused their effort was the same the results were different. The difference is a quality educator instills pride of workmanship and builds on the skills of all students and focus on long range skills.

One of the strategies I plan to use from this week is allowing some students to access the internet for exams. The idea that they will have access to all of the resources when they leave high school and should know how to use them to further success is the bases for my choice. Life skills are an important aspect for my students to acquire and visual online guides enhance learning.

Great post.
Crystal Annang


Thanks for sharing some real world experience here. I appreciate your dedication to creating individual experiences for your students with special needs. It is interesting, we have just finished field testing a web based resource to help students do research, and it is just as you describe, they just post the URL’s and that is it! We do have a responsibility as instructors and instructional designers, to provide resources and experiences that reflect real world circumstances, so that these upcoming students are ready for the 21st century. I also think that we have a responsibility to gently nudge students as far as they can go with the resources they have. Often many will surprise themselves! I love to see that!

Thanks for your response!


One point in particular stood out to me, and that was the idea that the student who cheats is only hurting him- or herself by failing to take the opportunity to learn the material. I have heard of professors grading on the curve, so that those who received higher scores by cheating actually caused other students to receive lower scores than they otherwise would have. However, I don’t think that’s the way things are commonly done now. For instance, Walden students have a rubric against which to compare their work. If every student were to perform at an exceptional level, then every student would expect to receive an exceptional grade. Therefore, if I were to, hypothetically, steal someone else’s work in order to get a better grade than I really deserved, I wouldn’t affect anyone else’s grade in the process: I would be merely hurting myself, as you observed.

What occurs to me is that, while copying another’s work is an obvious way to “cheat” and is forbidden and punished if the perpetrator is caught, one can also short-change oneself simply by performing at a level that, while it might fulfill the rubric requirements, does not represent the best work one is capable of doing. The difference is that cheating is penalized, while failing to do one’s best is not.

So, supposing you as an instructor become aware that, while a student is meeting your requirements, he or she isn’t putting more than a half-hearted effort into it. The student hasn’t necessarily broken an objective “rule”; however, he or she is still falling short in terms of learning. Do you have any thoughts about how to deal with the situation–including doing nothing, as long as the student meets stated requirements?

The first thought that comes to mind is understanding my students and their cognitive attitudes that could be discovered in Week Zero of our online planning for a course. If I see that a student has considerable background and ‘back knowledge’, I would probably choose to challenge that student to push a little further than they think they can. I have done this with my son and he has surprised himself with straight A’s. Students that are truly capable often need a little nudge so as not to become complacent. I think we have a unique role as an instructor to do this ‘nudging’ in a way that is non-confronting but inviting.

Thanks for your response.

Deborah, I found your post regarding on-line learning and and plagiarism to be quite interesting and mostly informative. As a graduate student at Walden University the Turnitin application is utilized to examine all documents that are turned in for review and considered the original document submitted by the student. I must tell you from my own experience, upon submitting my first assignment via Turnitin and seeing the percentage of information that was highlighted as a match to previously submitted information, I was alarmed and felt quite uneasy, although knowing I had not plagiarized. All that to say that I think the usage of this particular software is certainly a deterrent to plagiarism and I would be surprised to hear if other online programs or any academic institution would not be utilizing to prevent and/or cut down on the high numbers of plagiarism within it’s program. To your second point about preventative cheating measures, the standard for measuring the accumulated knowledge of a student within our program reflects your suggested method of having the student to write an essay to demonstrate their subject matter knowledge. I would be surprised to learn if traditional testing methods are used to as the measuring stick of what one has learned and how they would actually apply that knowledge to real life situations.

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