Cheating Threatens The Credibility Of Online Degrees
Since demographics have temporarily depressed the number of teenage college students, schools have rightly focused their growth prospects on older, often returning students. The new focus has coincided with a growth in the number and general quality of online programs, allowing colleges to meet the flexibility demands of these older, more obligated students. For schools and students alike, it’s been a good match, becoming the primary driver of college enrollment for the past handful of years.
Beyond their ability to afford geographic reach and schedule flexibility, these growing, new online programs targeted at working, returning adults are succeeding because of their credibility. It’s the core of their value that degrees earned online by returning students are, in most cases, indistinguishable from those earned by so-called “traditional” college-aged scholars.
The reason that’s the case is because the schools awarding degrees in these programs stand behind them. And they do that because they measure learning outcomes, assessing students in similar ways and holding them to similar standards across all their programs, online or otherwise.
That is the way it should be. Students earning degrees and credentials should be held to objective, quantifiable standards. Without that, it becomes impossible to tell exactly what accomplishment or skill is being represented by the attainment. Understanding that point—that students find value in flexible online programs because their value is verified by quality assessment—means that these programs are also extremely vulnerable on this very issue. Any backsliding or weaknesses in assessment in these programs will rapidly and thoroughly undermine their value. The consequences would be significant.
Should students or hiring decision-makers or the public at large suspect that those who earn degrees in flexible, mostly online programs have an easier and less rigorous path, demand would collapse. There would simply be little logic to investing time and money in an endeavor that lacks valuable return. If demand interest slows, colleges may be forced to discount these programs to remain competitive, only reinforcing the perception that they have less worth. The result of this declining value spiral would be reduced enrollment, reduced income from these programs, dramatically straining many colleges, possibly to the point of collapse. Just as the growth and understood value of these programs have been good for schools and students, such an outcome would cripple both.
Why Colleges Need To Invest In Quality Assessment Methods
All of which means that in order to protect their value, colleges absolutely must continue to invest in quality assessment methods and practices across their online catalogs. This especially includes efforts to combat academic misconduct and fraud, for two reasons.
One, cheating is an easy path that cuts down the value of accomplishment for everyone. If runners get a medal for running the 26.2 miles of a marathon and someone can get the exact same medal for just putting on their shoes, the value of the award is sadly tainted for everyone. That’s especially true if people know that one particular race isn’t really watching who is actually running and who’s just standing around at the starting line.
The other reason is simple. Many studies have shown that cheating is more common in remote or online classes and programs.
Not having robust integrity systems in online learning offerings aimed at adult students is like having no testing whatsoever. Students and others will quickly figure out and revalue schools and classes and programs rife with shortcuts and fluff. Skimping on assessments or integrity guardrails—or even worse, not having them at the outset—may feel like a way to squeeze value out of a program. But it’s a short-term, potentially disastrous, approach for everyone.
On the contrary, schools and programs that set top-level, even demanding, quantifiable learning standards and do all they can to counter academic shortcuts will prosper. Further, some degree areas link success in passing certification and professional exams to credentialing, the authority to offer those degrees. If those programs make it too easy on students, they won’t pass their certifications and the programs will shutter, leaving students stranded.
In a college landscape where some colleges have high standard assessments and some do not, institutions that do will be able to demonstrate more value and perhaps even charge more. It’s a long-term growth solution. Ideally, everyone would agree on high standards in both assessment and integrity. They cannot be optional. They are the precipice on which the entire value exchange balances. Like the old adage that one bad apple spoils the bunch, the very premise of online adult learning suffers whenever any institution neglects them.