In Fall 2021, California community colleges were inundated by tens of thousands of fake student accounts representing an effort to gain fraudulent access to financial aid (Burke, 2021). These fraudulent activities put a technological and fiscal hardship on the colleges and, more importantly, negatively impacted students by re-directing much needed financial aid and COVID relief dollars away from those who needed funding the most. While individual faculty can do little to modify cybersecurity protocols in community college systems, they can fight fraud by doing something regarding which they are experts: student engagement.
One should first recognize that students are not the ones committing fraud; most fraudulent attacks use a bot to mimic a student by applying, enrolling, and supposedly attending classes (Hall, et. al., 2021). The best way to identify these bots is to engage the students to detect potential fraud early in the semester. Faculty play an essential role in conformation and reporting of non-participants. The California Community Colleges Memo “Mitigating Enrollment Fraud –Instructional Practice & Reporting Obligations” (Alvarado, Davison, & Miller, 2021) states that per Title 5 §58004, districts and colleges are required to eliminate inactive enrollments by the census date. The only way colleges can accomplish this task is with the participation of faculty. Faculty are the ones in the classroom, whether in person or online, who can detect unengaged participants.
Faculty can identify fraud by engaging students early, often, and creatively in their classes. In addition to these efforts being an anti-fraud strategy, they are also an effective practice for student success. Data from the Research and Planning Group (RP Group, 2021) shows that students are more likely to succeed when they are engaged. This engagement includes students actively participating in classes and feeling that they are part of a community.
The following are some best practices for engaging students that will help in identifying fraudulent activity:
- Require substantive assignments, preferably more than one, in the first weeks of class, before census.
- Create group work assignments; students can help identify who is not contributing.
- Use office hours, both in person and online, to engage with students one on one.
- Proactively reach out to students if they have not completed assignments. Faculty can use an early alert or functionality in Canvas to contact students who have missing assignments.
- Create assignments that require critical thinking that would be beyond a rote bot response.
- Use interactive technologies like Padlet, Mentimeter, Poll Everywhere, or Canvas quiz to elicit student responses.
- Ask for follow up responses to grading comments.
- Engage students in discussion boards, using videos and image options in addition to text.
- Add language about student engagement in course syllabi and share expectations with students.
Using these strategies can help to ensure that the students are not bots in order to help all students. These strategies are not only best practices for student engagement, but they also fulfill the requirements of the US Department of Education under 34 CFR 600.2, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), and Title 5 §54204 and §55206 for regular and substantive interaction in online courses. Substantive interaction means students are engaged in teaching, learning, and assessment. Regular interaction is also required not just between student and instructor but among students (ACCJC, 2021).
In addition to these engagement strategies, faculty can take some practical and logistical steps to detect and report fraud:
- Message students in the course enrollment system before the term starts but after students have enrolled. Ask them to do an easy response activity such as responding to a short student information poll.
- If a waitlist exists, message all the students on the waitlist and ask them to give some short responses.
- Warn students who are enrolled that if they do not complete an initial required activity or if they miss a synchronous class they are required to attend, they may be dropped if they do not complete or attend the first activity or class meeting.
- If students ask for an add code for the course after the term begins but before census date, ask students to respond with why they want to take the class and look for any odd-sounding responses.
- Keep up to date on grading, especially before census, to help identify bot participation.
- Review student participation data in Canvas and look at how much time students are spending in Canvas. Very short bursts of activity on Canvas can be indicative of bot activity.
- Review local policies and work with administrative and faculty leadership on identifying fraud and create processes for how to report suspected fraud.
- Proactively clear non-active students early so other students can add needed classes.
- Create professional development opportunities on campus to discuss anti-fraud strategies and share best practices on student engagement.
- Ask for help if suspected fraud occurs.
Fraudulent activities negatively impact students financially and create challenges regarding lack of course access. Faculty have the opportunity and the responsibility to help identify fraudulent activity by proactively and frequently engaging students.
Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. (2021, June). Policy on Distance Education and on Correspondence Education. Retrieved from https://accjc.org/wp-content/uploads/Policy-on-Distance-and-on-Correspondence-Education.pdf.
Alvarado, M., Davison, D., & Miller, D. (2021, September 20). Mitigating Enrollment Fraud – Instructional Practices & Reporting Obligations. Retrieved from https://www.cccco.edu/Search-Memos-and-Official-Documents?search=&divisionsCategoryFilters=&topicsCategoryFilters=&studentsCategoryFilters=&typesCategoryFilters=&programsCategoryFilters=&fiscalyearsCategoryFilters=&activeFilters=&sort=relevance&page=1.
Burke, Michael. (2021, September 21). California Community Colleges seek $100 million in tech upgrades, in part to tighten security after bot attacks. EdSource, https://edsource.org/2021/california-community-colleges-seeks-100-million-in-tech-upgrades-in-part-to-tighten-security-after-bot-attacks/661361.
Hall, E., Reagan, M., West, C., & Zinshteyn, M. (2021, September 2). That student in your community college class could be a bot. Cal Matters, https://calmatters.org/education/higher-education/college-beat-higher-education/2021/09/california-community-colleges-financial-aid-scam/.
Research and Planning Group. (2021). Success Factors Framework (Six Success Factors). The RP Group. https://rpgroup.org/Our-Projects/Student-Support-Re-defined/SuccessFactorsFramework.