The debate about cheating in online courses seems never-ending and, honestly, as long as we set assignments where the answers can easily be found on the net it's not going to go away. Tony Bates writes about the problem in a post called Tools to prevent online cheating. He refers to a recent post by Ki Mae Heussner on Gigaom, Five ways online education can keep its students honest, which lists methods to counter student cheating. These methods involve setting up web cameras to watch students as they take the test, keystroke pattern recognition, browser lockdown and anti-plagiarism software.
If you want to test a student's ability to remember facts then traditional invigilated examinations are still probably the most effective method, though far from foolproof. An alternative often used around the world is local learning centres that can offer students in the region the chance to take tests in an invigilated environment in cooperation with the university. In these situations you can easily have ID checks and ensure that the right person is sitting the exam.
Online tests, however, are always going to be problematic unless we simply stop using this type of examination. A web meeting using for example Skype where the teacher can question the student face-to-face is ideal and reliable but too time consuming for classes with more than a small number of participants. However continuous assessment through a variety of assignments and using different media can give a reliable picture of the students' ability since the teacher can learn to recognize the student's style of expression. The key however is to base assessment on tasks that demand relating practical experience with personal learning; thus making the answers so personal and specific that it is virtually impossible to cheat.
Bates' conclusion however puts the cheating issue into perspective. Cheating means you have missed the point of education and the main person you're cheating is yourself.
"Cheating is often the result of a poor educational process or experience. Once again, this comes down to the distinction between learning as transferring information vs learning as a developmental process. If, as I do, you believe education is a developmental process, it is the student in the end who loses from cheating, because they have missed the point of the exercise, which is self development and growth."