Public Radio International (PRI) recently published an interesting story about the international big business of helping students cheat in their classes.
Lancaster [professor at Imperial College London] began studying contract cheating more than a decade ago when he noticed one of his own students posting assignments online. “I found one of my students who was putting up my assignment up for tender on an internet site. So, people were bidding different amounts of money to complete that computer programming assignment,” he said.
By contracting original homework assignments, students could bypass the detection of anti-plagiarism software developed in the 1990s.
Today, Lancaster estimates the global contract cheating industry is worth more than $1 billion, but academic writers in Kenya typically see a small share of it.
So, is any of this especially new? When I was in college, long before the web, we could buy lecture notes for most freshman and sophomore classes from a guy on a corner outside the university main gate. Although not as visible, it was also pretty easy to buy a paper to match your assignment. Or, with for a higher fee, find a grad student you could pay to custom write the paper.1
Now the pool of graduate students willing to do the work is world-wide, with web-based brokers taking their cut. But the effect is the same.
This is the flip side of the possibly even larger anti-plagiarism business typified by TurnItIn, which last year sold for $1.75 billion. Companies that store much of the same work in a database so teachers can root out the kids in their class who are buying the papers in the first place. It all goes round and round.
Do we blame the kids? Or does some (most?) of the responsibility fall on the fact that professors (and, let’s face it, high school teachers) are assigning the same research papers and essays their predecessors did decades ago?
Asking each new group of students to repeat the same process but come up with something new. Or at least new enough not to trigger alarms from the software.
Maybe we could reduce plagiarism, and the need for both “contract cheating” and paid gotcha services, by assigning students something more meaningful to do. Asking them to do work based their interests and the problems they see in the world that need solving. And then working with students to assess their own results.
A cure for cheating? Probably not as long as grades are more important than learning. But I suspect kids will find it much harder to buy a ready-made solution to an undertaking they helped create.
The image is one I created for a presentation. I thought it was a better variation on the standard “I did not cheat” statement that students are often asked to sign when they submit an assignment.
1. To answer the obvious question, no, I never paid for someone else’s paper. Being strange, I actually enjoyed the academic research process. Plus I didn’t have the necessary cash to spare.