Exemplars in the Fight against Syndicate Cheating

Over the past two weeks, Frontiers has featured its series on academic integrity and cheating syndicates. The first post considered the spectrum of threats facing higher education and our students and the second looked at the practices cheating sites use to entice (and trap?) students.

To finish up the series, I’m happy to welcome Shannon Riggs, Executive Director of Academic Programs and Learning Innovation at Oregon State University Ecampus and member of the WCET Steering Committee, who joins us today to discuss a survey WCET sent out earlier this year to members to learn how institutions are handling these issues.

A huge thank you to those who worked with us on this series and to those who answered our survey and participated in additional interviews.

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

Lindsey Downs, WCET


Two previous blog posts in this series have discussed what cheating syndicates are and how they work, and the impact of these syndicates on students. Faced with this threat to academic integrity and the value of earned degrees, institutions in higher education are developing effective strategies to fight against these nefarious syndicates, but may need to do more to effectively defeat them.

The Challenge (s)

There are at least two factors that make cheating syndicates particularly challenging to combat:

  1. The insidiousness and deception with which they operate, and
  2. The varying degrees to which institutions are organized in prevention and response strategies.  

Earlier this year, WCET surveyed its members to learn more about ways in which the problem of cheating syndicates is being addressed. Several respondents were contacted for more in-depth interviews. Though the number of survey responses received was fairly low (<10 institutions), several exemplar strategies emerged.

Faculty Development
Student Education
Course Design Approaches
Policy Adjustments
Vendor-Based Solutions
Technological Prevention & Response
Figure 1 Institutional Responses to Cheating Syndicates

Some institutions reported taking a single-strategy solution, and others reported taking a multi-pronged approach. In general, response strategies fell into six basic categories:

  • faculty development,
  • student education,
  • course design approaches,
  • policy adjustments,
  • vendor-based solutions, and
  • technological prevention and response.

The Fight

Faculty Development

Because third-party cheating sites have emerged so recently and their operations have evolved quickly, many faculty are unaware of their existence and how they operate. Faculty training is needed to raise awareness about what cheating syndicates are and how they work and needs to be updated as cheating site operations change.

a shadow of a professor writing on a whiteboard
Photo by ThisIsEngineering on Pexels.com

When faculty are informed about how cheating sites operate, they can warn students away from these sites and guide them toward more appropriate resources and study aids. For example, one departmental director shared that their faculty post announcements in their classes warning students about specific cheating syndicate websites and invite collaboration with the instructor in determining which sites are legitimate and which to avoid.

Student Education

Ashleigh Graham, resolution service manager at the University of Phoenix, reports that they are updating student education about cheating sites using communication methods that effectively reach students, including:

  • burst learning videos,
  • social media infographics, and
  • a shift from remediation-specific “how to cite” instruction to a more holistic approach that helps students understand how to approach papers, research, and synthesize information.

Stephanie Slaughter, resolution service manager at Phoenix, states they are also working on additional resources that address why students may be drawn by cheating sites to begin with, such as time management issues, lack of understanding about how research works, and struggles discerning the credibility of sources.

In addition to teaching students why use of these sites may constitute academic integrity, students may also need to be redirected to more appropriate, legitimate supports that require better time management and more effort to access, such as writing centers, tutors, teaching assistants and faculty office hours.

Course Design (and Redesign)

Course design strategies can be used to help decrease the opportunities for cheating and also teach students about academic honesty. Institutions reported that “assignment design and instructional strategies [can] make cheating less likely.” Requiring students to write papers in stages, for example, makes it more difficult to use an entire paper from an illegitimate source. Project-based learning, presentations with question and answer periods, authentic assessments, and collaborative writing can also be effective deterrents to cheating (and more importantly, effective learning experiences!).

In addition to strategic course design strategies, regular course redevelopment can be an effective strategy. Chris Small, academic resources and technology specialist at Southern New Hampshire University, advocates for frequent project refresh cycles to make assignments posted at cheating sites quickly obsolete. Small also recommends pooling assignments such as case studies so that students are working to master the same learning objectives with different learning materials.

Policy Solutions

a student with their head down behind a stack of books
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Another strategy to combat cheating sites may be to update university policies regarding academic integrity. Outdated policies may not sufficiently address the use of cheating sites at all. At the University of Maryland Global Campus, Dan Gallagher, director of the writing center, and Jen Simonds, assistant VP for academic integrity, report that UMGC updated its academic integrity policy to specifically prohibit uploading course materials to external websites. Dean of e-Learning at Ocean County College, Vivian Lynn, reports that OCC updated its academic dishonesty policy to include online proctoring and banned VPNs for online course content access.

Vendor-Based Solutions

The use of vendor-provided technologies and services to prevent and detect academic dishonesty is not new. Many are familiar with the plagiarism detection and prevention software that has been available for many years. Exam proctoring is another common strategy employed to prevent and detect academic integrity violations. Some institutions combine vendor-based solutions with more traditional methods of ensuring academic integrity.

Many institutions use a variety of live proctoring strategies in on-site and virtual formats. Oregon State University, due to limitations for on-site proctoring related to the pandemic, recently accelerated its transition to automated online proctoring and now provides free and unlimited artificial intelligence proctoring for all students, on-campus and online.

Technological Solutions

In addition to vendor-based solutions, some institutions are implementing more custom technological solutions to prevent and detect integrity violations involving cheating sites. Chris Small from Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), for example, reports significant success in contracting with a company for web-crawling services to identify assessment materials when they are uploaded to a third-party cheating site, followed by legal take-down notices. UMGC created their own similar web-crawling software to find proprietary materials uploaded to cheating sites, and uses a bot to automatically send take-down notices. SNHU and UMGC are also implementing the use of I.P. address identity authentication. Non-visible watermarking and the use of meta-data on institutional documents are additional technological strategies these and other institutions are exploring as strategies to combat cheating sites.

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble

It is important to note that cheating syndicates are not a problem only for online education providers. After all, students in traditional brick-and-mortar classes and those taking classes remotely all have access to the internet. Even before the pandemic, most students today take courses in a variety of modalities in pursuit of their degrees, ranging from wholly face-to-face, to web-enhanced, blended, hybrid, and fully online.

To successfully ensure academic integrity, professionals in higher education, regardless of the modalities in which we teach, should consider the following recommendations:

  1. Identify the strengths and opportunities for improvement in the fight against cheating syndicates using these strategies:
    • faculty development,
    • student education,
    • course design approaches,
    • policy language,
    • available vendor-based solutions, and
    • custom technological prevention and response strategies.
  2. Recognize that academic dishonesty has become more complex, and that a more sophisticated, multi-pronged approach to preventing and detecting integrity violations is likely warranted.
  3. Seek broad participation from across your institution to create a coordinated and systematic approach to preventing and detecting academic integrity violations. Consider including academic units from various disciplines, centers for teaching and learning, student conduct professionals, academic technologies departments, student services, writing and tutoring centers, academic advisors, distance education departments, student government representatives, and institutional legal counsel.
Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

Coordination amongst various units at individual institutions—and among various institutions of higher education—will likely be necessary to fully comprehend the threat and to formulate and operationalize an effective response.

Our students and our combined interest in the value the degrees we provide make this worthy of our efforts.

Thank you to all of those interviewed for this article, and for the authors who participated in this series on academic integrity and cheating syndicates.

WCET and its leadership are ready to join with the higher education community in this fight.


Shannon Riggs
Executive Director of Academic Programs and Learning Innovation
Oregon State University | Ecampus


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My name is Lindsey Rae Downs. I am the Assistant Director of Communications and Community for WCET, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. I work remotely from beautiful Helena, MT.

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