Cheating in E-Learning

It seems like every month there’s a new academic dishonesty scandal.

Since its major cheating scandal in 2012, Harvard University has seen a three-fold spike in dishonesty cases. In March, nine Air Force commanders were fired for cheating on nuclear missile exams in a case involving more than 100 airmen. Then the Navy had its own issues involving a fifth of the trainers at its nuclear reactor school in South Carolina. Even third-graders in Ohio are cheating on their reading tests.

To me, cheating in a traditional classroom setting always seemed to require too much risk and effort — other than, you know, not being ethical — to even consider. But with the rise in required e-learning programs used in the professional world, where there’s no teacher proctoring tests or there to catch you passing notes, I have to imagine a lot of the challenges of taking a peek at a peer’s paper aren’t there anymore.

But even amidst all the military, Ivy League and elementary school dishonesty, I wonder if your average, run-of-the-development-mill professional learning programs really face the same threat. Most people taking these tests are trying to advance their career or grow as a professional, so learning what they have to understand to pass is important to their development. Then again, that might just put more pressure on them to cheat. It’s why the runner-up for valedictorian at my sister’s high school cheated on a math test — and got caught. That’s how a group of students at Stuyvesant High School in New Yorkrationalized their own prep-school dishonesty.

Maybe it’s possible to outgrow cheating. But that’s a question even Google can’t answer — unless it’s in the context of romantic infidelity, of course. So let’s say that yes, some employees cheat on their e-learning programs. Why should companies even care? It’s the employees’ loss, right?

Wrong. It’s the organization’s loss, too. When consulting with Accenture on its large online learning programs, Justin Ferriman, co-founder of LMS provider LearnDash, said the learning industry often has a false perception that cheating can’t be tied to ROI.

“If the employee is told they have to take a training by their company and they go and they just kind of lackadaisically go through the training, take the quiz at the end and write the answers down just so they can pass it and be done with it, then it is costing the business money,” Ferriman said. “We sometimes turn a blind eye to cheating in the workplace because it’s not really tied to the business of the business, but it can have a negative impact on an organization.”

When employees cheat, it means they’ve wasted time they could be doing more lucrative things — like their jobs — for the company. They also waste the company’s money and effort spent on learning programs. And, above all, they won’t have the skills their employers want them to have to perform better in the future.

But what can learning and development leaders do to stop cheating?

“The short answer to that is you can’t,” said Ferriman. “You can make it more difficult, but nothing prevents somebody from clicking the print screen button on their keyboard and printing off the questions. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do anything about it.”

 Ferriman said that randomizing the order of questions on a test is a simple step that can deter cheating. Test makers can also mix up the answers to each question so no one can memorize the letter or number of the correct choice. Instead, they’d have to memorize the answer — and isn’t that the point, anyway?