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According to the results of a recent investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), some college students enrolled in online classes are receiving credit for plagiarized and insufficiently completed work.

The GAO investigation consisted of enrolling GAO representatives as fictitious students at 15 different colleges in order to observe their procedures for handling several areas of interest, including “substandard academic performance”. GAO's students engaged in substandard academic performance by using one or more of the following tactics: failure to attend class, failure to submit assignments, submission of objectively incorrect assignments, submission of unresponsive assignments, and plagiarism. [1]

The results showed that eight of the 15 colleges appeared to follow existing policies related to academic dishonesty.

However, at a couple of the other colleges, instructors failed to take action against GAO students who repeatedly submitted plagiarized work; and several students received credit for plagiarized work (having blatantly copied and pasted from the school’s website and peer student discussion sites). At one college, a student received a passing grade for submitting photos of celebrities and political figures for an assignment that called for a written essay.

What do you think are the best ways to handle plagiarism in online classrooms?


[1] “For-Profit Schools: Experiences of Undercover Students Enrolled in Online Classes at Selected Colleges” October 31, 2011. U.S. Government Accountability Office. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-150

[2] Jan, Tracy. “GAO report finds cheating, plagiarism and other violations in for-profit colleges’ online classes” November 22, 2011. The Bost Globe. http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/politics/2011/11/22/gao-report-finds-cheating-plagiarism-and-other-violations-for-profit-colleges-online-classes/IjaWF9wOvLBO6WV2uGF4gN/story.html


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Written by Beth Calvano, M.Ed., Educator/Writer. Read more of Beth's articles on her Examiner column.

In an online classroom, as in a traditional classroom, academic integrity is imperative and copyright laws must be strictly followed. If these goals are met, the online classroom can be a positive, effective learning and teaching environment.

According to the text for Newport Business Institute’s course, Introduction to Online Learning, academic integrity influences online course delivery Pearson Education Solutions, 2010).

  • Class sizes need to be kept at a manageable level as students need individual attention.
  • Course loads for instructors also need to be monitored so that a high quality of teaching is maintained.
  • Course objectives and learning outcomes are also important.
  • Objectives need to be met and outcomes have to be addressed.
  • Consistency is another imperative factor in the online classroom.
  • Consistent design elements and screen layout help to make learning and instruction more effective for students and instructors.
  • Using reputable sources is another must.

Not all Internet sources are reliable. In developing courses, copyright permission must be attained. Time commitment is significant in the design, creation, and delivery of an online course. The courses can be used again, however. After the actual creation of the course, the management and delivery of the course takes about as much time as an instructor-led course (Pearson Education Solutions, 2010).

To further address academic integrity, an educational institution should implement policies regarding proof of identification, plagiarism, and academic dishonesty. Online instructors should also be supplied with a resource guide and sample lesson plans. These instruction tools will give facilitators a place to start and offer resource materials. A detailed syllabus is also very important for the instructor and the students.

Fair Use

The violation of copyright laws has become easier with the advent of modern technology. For copyrighted material to be considered fair use, it must meet four conditions set by Section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976 (U.S. Copyright Office, n.d.). They are:

  1. Purpose and Character of Use - Is the use commercial or for a nonprofit educational institution?
  2. Nature of Work- Is the work nonfiction, fictional, or artistic? Nonfiction is more likely to be considered fair use.
  3. Amount and Sustainability of the Work Used- Only the amount needed should be used.
  4. Effect of the Use on Market Value- The courts look at the ultimate recipient. Did they purchase the copy or pay a fee? Was there financial harm to the holder of the copyright?

The TEACH Act is another provision for use in online delivery and learning. It provides guidelines for the use of digital media. The provision states:

  1. The media must be used as part of the classroom instruction.
  2. Only students enrolled in the course should have access to the material.
  3. The material should only be available for a limited time.
  4. Measures should be taken so that students cannot download material.

If the four provisions cannot be met, permission from the rights holder should be sought.

One must also take into account the difference between copyrighted material and Intellectual Property. Intellectual Property is anything originally created by the author such as a new invention that has use and a graphic or text that indicates the supplier of goods or a service (University of Texas Libraries, 2007).

Academic Integrity in a University Setting

Troy University, in Alabama, has developed Standards of Conduct to address academic integrity issues. The standards are included in the student handbook. The Standards section of the handbook “ includes definitions of misconduct, identifies corresponding administrative responsibilities, outlines procedures for disciplinary actions, lists potential penalties for misconduct, and defines the rights of accused students” (Kitahara & Westfall, 2007, para. 2 ). Disciplinary action is taken when students knowingly obtain the contents of a test, supplies or unauthorized material, or students use unapproved material dishonestly (Kitahara & Westfall, 2007). The penalties that befall a student who is accused of misconduct include a reduced grade or failure and suspension from the university. The standards are clearly stated and can be used as a reference in the event of an indiscretion.

Copyrighted Material in the Online Classroom

If a faculty member wishes to use copyrighted material such as a movie, music, pictures or other images, or an article, he or she must determine if the work is copyrighted. “Copyright protection arises automatically the moment an original work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. It does not need to be registered, published, or have a copyright notice on it” (Hoon, 2007, para. 2). To use material from a Web site that does not acknowledge copyrighted matter, one must research the material. Not all Web sites can be considered valid in their use of material. The author of the work should be considered the copyright holder. This rule includes anything written by a faculty member or a student. Some university campuses hold licenses to use certain copyrighted materials. The campus library must be consulted in these cases. The TEACH Act must be abided by if the material to be used is copyrighted and has no license. A faculty member would need to contact the campus library or campus council for directions on how to address the university’s TEACH Act protocol.


Hoon, P. (2007). Know your copyrights: Resources for teaching faculty. Retrieved from www.knowyourcpoyrights.org/

Kitahara, R. & Westfall, F. (2007, September). Promoting academic integrity in online distance learning courses. Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol3no3/kitahara.htm

Pearson Education Solutions. (2010). Introduction to online learning. Retrieved from Newport Business Institute IOL 101 Website.

University of Texas Libraries. (2007). Copyright crash course: The TEACH Act. Retrieved from http://copyright.lib.utexas.edu/teachact.html

U.S. Copyright Office. (n.d.). Chapter 1: Subject matter and scope of copyright. Retrieved from www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap.1.html#107

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