'Cheating Economy' Brings Frustration for Colleges—and Teachable Moments

Higher Education

'Cheating Economy' Brings Frustration for Colleges—and Teachable Moments

By Jeffrey R. Young     Feb 6, 2020

'Cheating Economy' Brings Frustration for Colleges—and Teachable Moments

This article is part of the guide: EdSurge Live: A Town-Hall Style Video Forum.

The job of preventing cheating at colleges can be especially tough when there is an aggressive industry selling students a variety of unethical assistance. For instance, custom paper-writing services offer students work tailored exactly to what the professor has assigned.

We’ve been exploring that tension in recent weeks with a series on the cheating economy. (You can read part one on the aggressive tactics used by companies, and part two on the response by colleges, and look for part three later this week.)

On the latest installment of our monthly online discussion forum, EdSurge Live, we brought in key experts quoted in our series to further explore the issue and answer questions from readers.

Our guests were Tricia Bertram Gallant, a longtime leader with the International Center for Academic Integrity and director of the Academic Integrity Office at the University of California San Diego; Douglas Harrison, vice president and dean of the school of cybersecurity and information technology at the University of Maryland Global Campus; and Amanda McKenzie, director of quality assurance for academic programs at the University of Waterloo, in Canada.

The leaders expressed frustration with the brazenness of the marketing pitches by paper-writing services, and one professor in the audience voiced frustration about the time and effort it can take to follow up on suspected cheating incidents.

Listen to the conversation below, or read a transcript of highlights, lightly edited for clarity.

Are you seeing these term-paper writing services getting more aggressive these days?

Gallant: So what's really new about their tactics—and it's ironic—is they're more honest on their websites than they used to be. So when they first started, [they’d say] “We're here to help you and provide a study aid.” Now they … say basically, "You don't have time to write your paper, we're here for you. Don't worry about it." They're basically saying, "We'll write your paper for you, give us all the specs, we'll write it." So that shifted.

On the other hand, their tactics off of their websites have gotten more clandestine. They'll join or create a group for, say, Econ 101, and they'll say, "Hey, are you in Econ 101? So am I, let's study together." And then they'll say, "Hey, is anybody having problems with this paper?" And someone will respond, of course, because there are always people having problems with papers. And then they'll say, "Hey, let's meet up here,” Or, “You know what, there's people that can do this for you." So they're pretending to be students. They're pretending to be engaged and caring about students and their learning. And really they're just seducing students into the contract cheating world.

Is that brazenness even more frustrating than when they pretended to be legitimate study help services?

Gallant: Yeah. It is frustrating to me because I think it's a result of radio silence from governments and from universities around the world. Some governments are doing better at this recently, but what [these companies are] doing isn't illegal, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of counter-cultural narrative to name and shame them or for a moral outrage by society. That's not happening. And so they've gotten more brazen. And to me that's frustrating because I feel like the world has let this happen.

It sounds like colleges are starting to push for legislation to make more of this behavior illegal. What are some of those efforts, Amanda?

McKenzie: There's certainly legislation in some states and other countries like Australia and New Zealand, and I believe Ireland has just implemented some legislation against the advertisement of these services. We haven't gone that far in Canada that I'm aware of as of yet, but there are groups of practitioners like myself who are working to coordinate our efforts to talk about what legislative change we might want to see here.

It's early days. I think really the main thing that university campuses can do and college campuses can do is really talk about it. Why do students really need or feel the pressure that they have to seek out these other third-party vendors? Typically, they should have access to tutoring and other support, writing and communication centers and counseling services on their campuses. That should help to negate the need to seek these other services off campus, which they can't guarantee the quality of, and plus they have to pay for them.

Doug, you’ve talked about another challenge with cheating, which is some students truly may not understand plagiarism or what the rules and expectations are about why they shouldn’t turn in someone else’s work because of how much re-mixing there is in popular culture.

Harrison: We live in sort of Web 3.0 culture. We're a generation or two into web culture now and it is dramatically and drastically changing what all generations who interact with the web think about what originality and authenticity mean. And there's a lot of good research out there. Some of the best research here is suggesting that what was, up until about 10 or 20 years ago, a pretty settled post-enlightenment consensus about the position of originality in Western culture has really been exploded by the free circulation and the open exchange of ideas online.

Whether we like it or not, there is a large portion of the culture that's used to taking a pastiche, a mash-up approach to anything that's encountered in terms of information online and assembling it in the way that that seems authentic or unique or interesting to them and presenting it as their own, whether it's the cat video that your Aunt Kathy is constantly circulating or it might be a piece of academic work that you are presenting as your own. … These forces are really real and whether we like it or not, we’ve got to grapple forthrightly with them.

What’s the biggest advice you’d give campus leaders on how to combat the contract cheating industry?

Gallant: Start talking about it. Really it's the lack of conversation about this and not just about the contracting industry, but about integrity in general. We assume that students are going to be honest.

[Audience question] Do we have any real data on [how prevalent contract cheating is?]

Gallant: So Tracey Bretag recently came out with an article. And I think it was estimated that around 7 million students worldwide are engaging in contract cheating. And then Thomas Lancaster, also in the UK, has more information about the industry itself, and he and others have estimated that it's a billion-plus-dollar industry at this point and growing every day.

McKenzie: I also want to mention that there will be an updated study coming from the International Center for Academic Integrity, where we'll be asking those important questions and be looking for educational institutions across North America and beyond to start gathering some of that data again. So I think that that's a hopeful thing, and of course, data in this area is generally very limited. So the more research opportunities we can encourage people to explore the better.

[audience question] I worked at the library, I'm an information specialist. And I would organize workshops on cheating, which nobody would attend. [And sometimes professors feel like when they challenge a student over academic integrity issues, the college will side with the student since they are the customer.]

McKenzie: I don't think we've had any magic bullets to engage faculty a little bit more in the conversation. I always point back to basically more communication and awareness across campus, and talking about the elephant in the room. Just because it's going to be a pain to perhaps work through a misconduct case doesn't mean that it should not be dealt with. So how can we make it easier? What are other options we can do?

Gallant: Yeah, I find that if we frame it as a teaching-and-learning issue … that both administrators and faculty are much more likely to get on board. So this is not about preventing cheating and catching cheaters and punishing tutors. That's not what this is about. This is about ... ensuring the integrity of our certification process. So when somebody gets a bachelor's degree or a master's degree or a PhD or what have you, we're saying this person is capable at this level to do certain things.

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