Cheating – Or Collaborative Learning?

Web 2.0 tools such as wikis, weblogs, online bookmarking, Skype®, and Facebook® are changing the way students socialize and learn. These and other online networking tools offer productive and noncompetitive ways for students to complete their work.(1) According to a recent survey of schools:

  • 69 percent have student Web site programs
  • 49 percent participate in online collaborative projects with other schools
  • 46 percent have students participate in online international programs
  • 35 percent run course blogs
  • 22 percent create and maintain wikis(2)

The learning benefits of these social networks are not without controversy. Some educators believe the temptation to cheat increases with the use of these new electronic communication technologies.(1-3)

Some of the fears associated with online education are: 1) Getting assessment answers in advance, 2) Unfair retaking of assessments, and 3) Unauthorized help during assessments.(3) The third problem, getting unauthorized help, is probably the most common way for online students to cheat. After all, there is no guarantee that the student who logs on to the Web site is the one who is posting the answers. Some methods for video monitoring might ensure that the enrolled student is present, but it is difficult to be certain the student is "alone.” For example, students were caught using Wi-Fi microphones to cheat on national college entrance exams in China.(4) The students communicated with a van outside the testing center using wireless microphones. Students have been caught using "cheating shoes,” "cheating wallets,” and "cheating hats” which are capable of transmitting and receiving Wi-Fi.(4) However, the use of "cheating hats” and other similar technologies show that cheating is not limited to online students.

Web 2.0 technologies encourage collaboration. Sharing and critiquing ideas is the essence of science; but, where is the fine line between collaboration and cheating? Some instructors avoid this question, banning collaboration altogether as cheating. Recently, a student faced expulsion from Ryerson University for setting up a study group on Facebook.(5) In this case, a professor accused the student of misconduct for violating his rules for working alone.

In contrast to the arguments and fears expressed by those educators who feel Web 2.0 applications result in increased cheating, other teachers actually believe that the online environment creates an opportunity for enhanced communication and less cheating.(6) A study comparing teaching online versus face-to-face suggests that there is less cheating in online courses because they emphasize stronger teacher-student and student-student relationships.(6) Instructors who encourage online study groups as a way for students to help each other complete assignments don’t see online collaboration as a form of cheating. At the University of Western Ontario, Web 2.0 tools such as Facebook are used to coordinate study groups for new students.(5) However, these Web sites contain reminders on academic policy and integrity and a link to a list of academic offences.(5)

How do we encourage the ethical use of these online collaborative tools? Many educators believe that cheating can be solved by implementing stricter guidelines and punishment. For example, increasing numbers of faculty require their students to submit assignments and term papers to online anti-plagiarism tools such as turnitin.com for an "originality test.” However, punitive approaches are not always effective and may not even be desirable when the point is for students to learn and value honest behavior as an end to itself.(7) Professor Morrison, from the University of Waterloo, believes that the use of online collaborative tools requires the teacher to adjust his or her approach. Morrison says, "I would never want to say, stop sharing, stop helping other students learn.”(5) Denying or limiting the use of Web 2.0 tools stifles the possibility of collaboration and questions the very technology online educators use and promote.(5) Besides, current research suggests that cheating is actually reduced when students monitor one another.(3)

It seems contradictory that most classes, both online and face-to-face, emphasize teamwork yet grade and rank students individually. The School of Design at Stanford University has eliminated all exams; instead, the assignments reflect collaborative work, making it "impossible to cheat.”(8) Students who find help to complete their work are considered "inventive.” Likewise, there is a strong movement in scientific research to move towards open collaboration. Web sites such as Nature Precedings (http://precedings.nature.com) provide opportunities for scientists to share pre-publication research, presentations, and other scientific documents in an effort to facilitate communication over publication.

Most health students know the difference between cheating and collaboration, but some of them succumb to the dark side because they are negatively influenced by the pressures of achieving high marks and earning a degree. Unfortunately, there are a few unscrupulous students who seem to take advantage of any opportunity to cheat, online or off. Considering the educational value offered by Web 2.0 and the benefit these collaborative technologies have on reducing negative stresses, it seems a shame to deny the greater number of students the experience and benefit of working with these learning tools.

When students control their own learning environments, a truly learner-centered pedagogy becomes possible.(9) This academic dilemma reminds me of a fable about some frogs who were tired of sharing the log they sat upon. They wanted a king who would rule over them and keep them in order. So, Mother Nature sent them a stork that gobbled them up. The moral of the story is "Better no rule than cruel rule.” Even better yet, how about "fair rule,” which puts the onus upon the instructor for adjusting his or her approach in order to accommodate the ethical use of collaborative tools such as Web 2.0 in the online class.


  1. Waldrop, M.M. (2008, January 9). Science 2.0: Great new tool, or great risk? Scientific American. Retrieved June 18, 2008, from http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=science-2-point-0-great-new-tool-or-great-risk
  2. Karlin, S. (2007). NSBA report examines how youths interact online. Retrieved June 18, 2008, from http://www.nsba.org
  3. Rowe, N.C. (2004). Cheating in online student assessment: Beyond plagiarism. Retrieved June 20, 2008, from http://www.westga.edu
  4. McCloskey, P. (2007). Chinese arrest three in Wi-Fi exam cheating caper. Campus Technology. Retrieved June 11, 2008, from http://campustechnology.com/articles/48632/
  5. Agrell, S. (2008). Cheating or academic exchange? Globe and mail. Retrieved June 10, 2008, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/
  6. Smith, G.G., Ferguson, D., & Caris, M. (2001, April). Teaching college courses online vs. face-to-face. THE Journal. Retrieved June 10, 2008, from www.thejournal.com/the/printarticle/?id=15358
  7. Jasper-Parisey, C. (2001, May 1). Turnitin.com [Electronic version]. Library Journal, 126(8), 138.
  8. Conlin, M. (2007). Commentary: Cheating – or postmodern learning? Business Week. Retrieved June 11, 2008, from http://www.businessweek.com/
  9. Brown, G., Peterson, N. Wilson, A. & Ptaszynski, J. (2008). Out of the classroom and beyond. Microsoft White Papers. Retrieved June 11, 2008, from http://www.microsoft.com/


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