Kayleigh Kruger signed up for her virtual Latin course to help her better understand biology vocabulary. But the Wiregrass Ranch High School sophomore knows that not everyone has such motivation.
"Of course some students are going to cheat," she said, acknowledging that she had heard some talk in the past. "Some take it only to graduate."
Florida law now requires students to earn at least one credit online in order to receive a diploma. And Wiregrass Ranch, like most Pasco high schools, has set up a computer lab staffed with aides specifically for students to take virtual courses during the school day.
With virtual education growing — the district recently approved its first online charter school — board members increasingly are questioning whether academic integrity can be maintained for students who are out of sight.
"I really am concerned about the integrity of the work," said Vice Chairwoman Alison Crumbley. "I just know, probably because I have had the most recent graduating kids, and I've heard them talk. I've had the kids tell me how easy it is (to cheat), and I don't like that."
On Tuesday, Pasco eSchool principal Joanne Glenn led a board workshop where she attempted to put the issue in perspective, if not resolve concerns.
Glenn opened by acknowledging that cheating exists. Recent surveys of students showed that more than half admitted to cheating on a test in the past year, she said.
One of the top reasons students cheat, Glenn continued, is because they perceive no penalties will come. That's true, she said, regardless of where students sit.
The issue has grabbed the district administration's attention, learning community executive director David Scanga told the board.
"This has become a very challenging and hot topic in the classroom, as well," Scanga said, suggesting that more work is needed to instruct students on what is plagiarism, what isn't, how to cite sources and related matters. "This same issue is real in our classrooms."
Superintendent Kurt Browning said his team planned to update the student code of conduct, with specific attention to making these definitions, and the disciplinary actions, much more clear.
In the meantime, Glenn said, the eSchool and other accredited virtual schools have taken steps to prevent students from slipping through classes without doing their own work.
Teachers have an introductory call with each student and a parent or guardian, reviewing the rules about academic integrity. Moving forward, the teachers have monthly phone conversations with the students and parents, as well as what she called discussion-based assessments for the students.
With those assessments, instructors can ask questions aimed at determining whether students are understanding their lessons. In some instances, the teachers won't allow students to proceed to the exams because they don't see the teens as having made any progress.
"If they are not the one who did that work, they are not going to be able to explain their work," Glenn said.
Beyond that, she added, student writings are regularly submitted to the turnitin.com plagiarism detection service. Online tests are created for students by randomly assigning questions from a bank of possibilities, so students taking the same course are unlikely to get the same test.
The eSchool also randomly selects students to take proctored exams with a teacher.
Testing centers are one common solution, said John Fremer, president of Caveon Consulting Services, a company that specializes in rooting out cheating. But there are also other possible steps to take.
Those include mixing in a variety of questions on a test that require thinking beyond the basics, he said, so whoever takes a test or completes the work must demonstrate understanding of the concepts.
"The quality of the assessment is the biggest thing," agreed Susan Patrick, president of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.
Schools can use advanced analytics of things such as computer keystrokes, to determine whether the same person is sitting at the computer the entire time, too, Fremer said.
And another key, though it sounds simple, is just to remind students that their work should be their own, he added. Once the work is done, he said, schools should always be on the lookout for the improbable, and "then you have to be prepared to take action."
That should be the same for traditional classroom cheating, Patrick said.
"If a student is motivated to be dishonest, that is not dependent on the delivery mode," she said.
Students in Wiregrass Ranch High's virtual school lab said the district should act against violators and not stop online courses.
They said the teacher calls, discussion-based assessments and other methods should root out the cheaters, while proving the other students are learning. In some ways, the students said, all the interventions make it harder to pass an online course.
"They call you and ask you questions," said sophomore Sebastian Castillo, who's taking four online classes this year. "You're taking a class online. You have to at least learn and do all the lessons. … You're supposed to know."
"For people that want to learn the course, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't cheat because they want to learn the course," she said. "They should have consequences for the individuals and not just say, this person is cheating, let's take out the entire thing."
School Board members said they felt slightly more comfortable after Glenn's workshop, although they still had many questions. They said they would look forward to seeing the new code of conduct recommendations from the superintendent.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.