With the growing popularity of distance education (The University of Phoenix claims to be the largest accredited school in the US) I wonder how long it will be until you can “outsource” your class work.

Several schools offer distance education in a model which is designed to accommodate students who never set foot on a campus. While this is compelling to the university, who does not have to provide a classroom, lights, heat, parking, and it is compelling to the student who is freed from the restrictions of class times and travel, does this model open the door to a new form of cheating?

An industrious company based somewhere that labor is cheap, could offer a “tutoring” service for online education. If someone had the means (price of enrollment plus a couple hundred dollars per course), they could enroll in an online course for their undergraduate, masters, or even doctoral degree and pass off their username and password to a proxy scholar. The proxy scholar then would complete the class work from anywhere in the world, and the class is applied to the degree of the purchaser.

Sound far fetched? In the game industry “farming” is common practice. Farming is when players play the game, by the rules, and once they acquire items within the game they sell them for real money! To avoid the problems with selling something that is intellectual property of the game producers, farmers sell their time invested in obtaining the item, but essentially the purchaser is buying the item. For more information on this, check out borkweb.com’s article World of Warcrack and the future of MMOGs

Perhaps more concerning is this example of three teachers at a technical college in Georgia who are being accused of this exact crime. While it is currently unclear if money changed hands, it is believed that another individual not associated with the college completed course work under the name of these three teachers.

So how can colleges combat these “proxy scholars?” Of course there are academic integrity policies in place, but they are unlikely to detour the student looking for the easy way out. PKI solutions and biometrics have their own scary side-effects and anyone who thinks they can’t be forged is not paying attention.

I am afraid we will only hear more about this type of fraud. Hopefully institutions offering distance education can develop a way to mitigate this outsourcing of class work before it devalues the online work that so many students are legitimately achieving.