Integrity In Online Degree Programs


Those involved in online education often hear the question, “but, how do you know the person taking the course on the other side of the computer is really who they say they are?”

This question, although not unique to online education, strikes at a very important issue to online education, both for educators and for students. That issue is integrity.

Integrity is the key that holds the world of virtual education together. For the distance learning system to work—for the online degree to have value—it is necessary that everyone operate with integrity.

Student Integrity Issues
We hear most commonly of issues related to student integrity. It seems that the online environment does lend itself to temptation in the area of academics.

Cheating & Academic Dishonesty
Probably the most common concern among critics of the online degree is the one voiced above. How does a school ensure that its students are operating honorably?

In the Internet age, the opportunities to defraud are almost limitless. It is possible for students to fake their term papers. It is possible for students to cheat on distance-administered tests. It is even possible for students to have others take their courses for them.

But, if you think about it, all of these things are possible—and they all happen—in campus-based systems, also. They are not unique to the online environment.

However, good schools put mechanisms in place to ensure academic integrity. They require students to take proctored exams, at least occasionally. Their instructors match student writing samples from a variety of sources (emails, discussion posts, submitted papers) and they rely on peer monitoring.

After all, just like on campus, nobody wants to be the person working hard, while another is getting by cheating.

There are several great systems for monitoring academic integrity on a course by course basis. Good schools use them aggressively.

Misrepresentation & False Credentials
The Internet and personal computers have made it possible for unscrupulous students to “create” their own degrees, their own transcripts, and their own diplomas. This is a serious problem, especially when students then use those credentials to get jobs, certifications, and other benefits.

Managing this issue is very difficult because it does not originate within the online degree program’s control. It is a situation in which people leverage their knowledge of technology for an unethical gain.

The School’s Integrity
Equal in importance in distance education to the student’s integrity is the school’s. The distance learning environment, and the attractiveness of the degree, provide fertile ground for unethical acts on behalf of schools, even those with accreditation.

Phony Schools, Diploma Mills, False Credentials
Undoubtedly the most egregious breach of integrity among schools are those which operate as “diploma mills.” A diploma mill is a school that offers to sell diplomas for a market price.

They do not have curriculum programs. They do not have courses. They do not, in many cases, have faculty members. Their transaction is to offer the “student” a degree for a fee.

Sometimes the diploma mills require students to create a portfolio of their learning and life experience. The schools “evaluate” that diploma and, miraculously, every portfolio qualifies for a high degree.

Various government agencies work to regulate these schools, but it is very difficult. If they are shut down in one place, they can easily move to another location and reopen.

Accreditation agencies are of course adamantly opposed to this sort of thing. But they are also largely powerless to stop the activity.

The only group that can stop this kind of activity are consumers, either consumers of the degrees (students) or those who employ them. Without a willingness to confront these schools, they will inevitably work their bad medicine in the distance learning marketplace.

Technology Support
Any school, upon launching a distance learning program, takes on a burden to appropriately support its learners with good technology. Whether that means making sure the servers are “up” as close to 100% of the time as possible, or making good decisions about the learning technology deployed, it is the school’s obligation to provide appropriate technology support.

This is an area in which many otherwise legitimate schools try to get by cheap. Whether due to budget constraints, leadership deficiency, or bureaucratic ineptitude, many schools shortchange their distance learners with a shoddy commitment to excellence in technology. It is unethical for them to do so.

Instructor Integrity
The question posed at the beginning of this article about student integrity has a cousin: What about professor integrity?

It is easy in the online environment for an instructor to run a sloppy course. Whether due to a lack of training, lack of interest, or general bad habits, many faculty members provide a poor student experience in a distance learning course. This is, of course, not acceptable.

On the other hand, the online environment does make it significantly easier for an engaged administrator to monitor a course. Unlike a physical classroom in which, once the door is closed, it is impossible to know what is really going on, in a distance learning situation, the course activity is usually archived on a server.

That means an interested observer can keep a rather close eye on the quality of academic work taking place in a virtual class. They should be aggressive about doing so.

Commitment to Distance Learning vs. Classroom
Some institutions offer their programs by distance learning because it is trendy or profitable to do so. However, their hearts are really not in it. Their real preference is to support the classroom operation.

This violates the integrity of those students who have enrolled in the distance learning program. They deserve consideration equal to that extended to on-campus students.

It is possible to observe the budget, time, and energy resources expended on behalf of distance education to know an institution’s real commitment. If they are offering distance learning programming, simple integrity calls for them to back the programming up with adequate resources and commitment.

“Only In It for the Money”
For many institutions, nontraditional and distance learning programs are cash cows. They do not require an investment in buildings or the overhead to run them. They can be operated, often, by relatively few staff members. They are very profitable.

It is certainly not unethical to earn a profit. However, it is unethical to operate a distance learning program, starve it for resources, and squander those resources either on overhead or campus expenses.

Virtual Students should be very wary of schools that charge high tuition rates for courses that meet in off-campus office buildings or online. This is a sign that the school is using its nontraditional programming to subsidize its campus operation. In itself, this may or may not be unethical, but on the underlying matter of providing a better learning experience for the campus-based students, certainly there is an integrity issue.

Integrity in the distance learning environment is an important and complex issue. It is worthwhile for Virtual Students to consider integrity: their own, that of their peers, and that of their institutions.

© 2005
All Rights Reserved!