Online Professors Pose as Students to Encourage Real Learning

But Critics Say They Cross An Ethical Line, and Actual Students Are Shocked When the Ruse is Revealed

Originally published May 20, 2009 at


Jane Malan and Bill Reed are cousins in deception. They infiltrate online courses and secretly collect information about students by blending in with them.

She comes off as a clever thirty-something, with a photo that shows strong features. He poses as a silent twenty-something with some skill at fishing —his photo depicts him holding what appears to be a large rockfish.

A classmate once asked the goateed fisherman to get together, a doomed romance for one reason: He does not exist.

Both Mr. Reed and Ms. Malan are the alter egos of real professors. They belong to a small group of “ghost students” that academics in Indiana, Connecticut, and South Africa have injected into online courses to kick-start discussions among students, keep them from dropping out, and spy on their communications.

The deceit has provoked questions about faculty ethics. Two of the professors admit that their unreal students teeter on an ethical precipice, because the technique could be abused. Others in the distance-education community accuse them of falling over the cliff. The critics worry such behavior could scar the image of an education sector many still regard with skepticism.

Professors who use these puppets argue they have a serious purpose. Barbara Christe, an associate professor of biomedical-engineering technology at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, invented “Bill Reed” because she felt disconnected from her online students. Other proponents say fake students can bridge the isolation students feel sitting alone at their computers. They stimulate participation. They build learning communities. And the ultimate hope is that they help keep students from dropping out, a serious concern of distance educators.

Some student reactions suggest something else: Don’t do it.

Betrayed. Cheated. Shocked. Those are feelings some University of Pretoria students expressed when, after nine weeks of learning together, Lynette Nagel revealed in an e-mail message that their supposed classmate “Jane Malan” was in reality Ms. Nagel, the lecturer teaching their course. In a 2007 paper, “Methical Jane: Perspectives on an Undisclosed Virtual Student,” Ms. Nagel and her two co-authors quoted one student’s reaction: “What other sneaky tricks do you still have to admit responsibility for?”

Violating Trust

The trickery flabbergasts some fellow professors, too. Frederick B. King, of the University of Hartford, teaches his online classes with the help of what might seem like the teaching assistant from hell: a backward-cap-wearing, pack-a-day-smoking contrarian named Joe Bag O’Donuts. Mr. King, who does disclose upfront that “Joe Bags” is bogus, compares a secret fake student like Bill Reed to “wiretapping.” Elizabeth J. Burge, who edited a special ethics issue of the journal Open Learning, reacts to Mr. Reed’s surveillance with disbelief.

“It puts into question the trusting and respectful relationship that has to be developed between teacher and student,” says Ms. Burge, an adult-education professor at the University of New Brunswick, in Canada. “And if you betray that trust, and you in effect set up an espionage system, then how on earth are you going to have meaningful, deep, authentic discussions?”

Ms. Christe has drawn such darts before.

Bill Reed is her invention. Ms. Christe got “nasty notes” attacking her morality and effectiveness as a teacher after going public about the character in a 2005 article in Online Classroom, which labeled Bill Reed a “virtual secret agent.” The fury has died down. But even now, when The Chronicle inquires whether she has tenure, Ms. Christe laughingly quips, “Yeah, so you won’t get me fired. Otherwise I wouldn’t have continued this conversation.”

Bill Reed’s story begins a decade ago, when Ms. Christe, director of biomedical-engineering technology at Indiana-Purdue, started to teach online. She has been honored as one of her campus’s top teachers. But she felt “terribly disconnected” from students when mouse-clicks supplanted human interaction. She wanted to duplicate “soft skills,” like inviting students in when you hear them grumbling in the hall.

The result was Bill Reed, a silent observer who has appeared on the student rosters of perhaps 20 classes but is really just a course-management-system guest account monitored by Ms. Christe. He lets her peek at internal messages students send to “all students” within a class, notes she otherwise would not be able to see.

Ms. Christe once caught a student who shared homework. Mostly, though, the messages Bill Reed receives help her flag other problems. She responds in her real voice. “I heard there’s a lot of confusion about Question 2,” she might e-mail the class. She omits how she heard.

Ms. Christe’s tactics touch on the bigger question of how much privacy students expect in online classes —or whether they even care. Students may be unsure what their professors can and can’t see, says Lorna Kearns, a University of Pittsburgh instructional-design research assistant who raised the fake-student cases in April at a distance-learning conference. From course logs of material that students have viewed to archives of their chat posts, the reality is that tech-savvy professors can see a whole lot. Is Ms. Christe’s character just another tracking tool? Or is it more like bugging a dorm room?

“It doesn’t bother me in the least,” says Steve Smith, 25, a former classmate of Bill Reed’s. “I think all teachers should be able to see what their students are talking about.”

One issue, Ms. Christe concedes, is that the tool could be used “in ways that I don’t.” Like monitoring faculty members. Ms. Christe says she knows of professors who have used fake students to monitor courses taught by part-time instructors, without telling them.

Ms. Christe stresses that she doesn’t lie. She doesn’t inject Bill Reed into discussions. That woman who asked him to get together? She got no reply.

“I think it is ethical,” Ms. Christe tells The Chronicle, “because it is a way to be in touch with my students, to enforce class rules. … Since he doesn’t participate as a student, I feel it’s a tool I can use. But I think it’s a gray area.”

The South African study plumbed another gray area: secretly deploying a fake student who does participate.

The professors kept up the ruse for just one study, but the project required a more elaborate deception. Their online guinea pigs —23 students enrolled in a master’s-level class on Web-based learning —knowingly consented to be part of a study. They did not know the “finer details,” says Ms. Nagel, who taught the class as a Ph.D. student working with two other professors. One of those details was that Jane was a fake student.

Fewer Dropouts

In previous offerings of the course, 50 percent or more of the students vanished before it was over. Ms. Nagel and her colleagues wanted to lower the dropout rate. Research shows online learning benefits from participation. The professors combed the literature for ideas. They found … Joe Bags.

Actually they found “A Virtual Student, Not an Ordinary Joe.” That was the 2002 paper that Mr. King published about his success using a fake character to alleviate some of the “chronic problems” that contribute to what he called “a much higher course ‘dropout’ rate in online courses compared to traditional campus-based education.” Problems like frustration with technology. Isolation. Anxiety.

The professor turned to Joe Bags as an antidote to the response he kept getting when he posted comments under his own name: silence. Once the expert spoke, the discussion died.

So every year Mr. King introduces his phantom student at the start of class. Some find it befuddling to meet a bogus classmate with the last name Donuts.

“I was sitting there going, ‘Is this typical?” recalls Aisha Mohammed, 26, an educational-technology student who studied with Mr. Donuts. “Like, suuuuure,” she says, laughing. “Whaaaaaatever. It was a little weird.”

Before long, though, Ms. Mohammed found herself interacting with Mr. Donuts like other students. (Like them, he has an e-mail address: He demonstrates the etiquette for challenging an opinion without being confrontational, Mr. King says. He also plays devil’s advocate. He prods the class to avoid “sheeping,” Ms. Mohammed says, in which everyone repeats the same thing. He posts incorrect answers to questions so that other students can correct him.

Mr. King’s paper reported 100- percent completion rates for his distance-education classes. Likewise, Ms. Nagel views Jane Malan’s interventions as a success: The portion of students passing the course shot up to 80 percent.

Still, one technology expert pointed out that there are other ways to encourage participation. One is rewarding students with points toward their grades for helping their classmates with assignments, says Robbie Melton, associate vice chancellor for educational technology at the Tennessee Board of Regents. As for snooping with fake students, Ms. Melton says, “If you are an effective teacher, that should never enter your mind.”

Nishikant Sonwalkar, research director at the United States Distance Learning Association, worries that professors who use fake students to snoop might learn things that influence their opinions about students’ characters —and perhaps grades.

Add this concern to the list, too: Such activities could “give those who are not in online learning a different sense about the sorts of things that go on there,” says Melody M. Thompson, an assistant professor of education at Pennsylvania State University and a former administrator of World Campus, its online-learning program. “There are plenty of people out there willing, without having had experience, to say distance learning is substandard.”

For Ms. Nagel, revealing Jane’s identity after the course came as a relief. She does not plan to use an undisclosed fake student again: “I don’t think it’s nice to shock people out of their wits.”

Bill Reed was recently deactivated in a university sweep of guest accounts. Says Ms. Christe: “I am working to request his restoration.”

And Joe Bags is about to take “Learning Theories” for the ninth time. Says Mr. King: “No one said he was smart.”

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