Why do students cheat — and how are they getting away with it?

One unintended use for massive open online courses, dubbed “MOOCs,” is to help professors better understand the mechanics of cheating in online learning.

Bernard Bull, an assistant vice president for academics at Concordia University Wisconsin, will ask his class to cheat for the purposes of anthropological research. Students will then be asked to disclose exactly how they cheated.

The assignment is a unit in a new class, “Understanding Cheating in Online Courses,” which is offered through the Canvas MOOC platform run by Instructure, a course-management company.

This research will come in particularly handy for educators and online course providers like Instructure and Coursera. With a handful of Coursera courses recently approved for credit, the fear is that students will simply perform a Google search if they’re stumped. As the New York Times reports, the solution may be a new technology for remote proctoring, where online test takers are tracked via their keystrokes.

In the meantime, Bull hopes to dig into the psychology behind cheating and to take steps to prevent it. He embarked on a study a few years ago and found that half of all cheaters never get caught, prompting further investigation. According to Instructure, he held off on publishing this research until he could get a better handle on what motivates people to cheat.

One interesting example is a girl who claims a former boyfriend sabotaged her online test by logging in under her user name. But it was a lie — she made up the whole story in order to get a second chance at a test. Bull’s class will explore the reasons that this girl felt compelled to cheat, and whether the current education system can be adapted to prevent such behavior.