If you never cheated during an exam or an assignment at university, then you at least know someone who did.
It’s a practice as old as the educational institutions themselves. And it’s been on the rise ever since the COVID-19 pandemic forced students, teachers and faculty out of their classrooms and into online learning.
Sarah Eaton, a professor at the University of Calgary, said she has seen increases in cheating from about 40 per cent to over 200 per cent, based on reports published by schools across the country.
It’s not just Canada — other countries around the world have reported similar increases since the beginning of the pandemic. “The pandemic has really affected how we teach and learn,” she said. “It’s impacted all aspects of education.”
But online learning isn’t to blame, she said, having long researched academic misconduct in Canadian post-secondary institutions.
“There was about 20 years of research before the pandemic that showed that there was less academic misconduct in online courses compared to face-to-face learning.”
Rather, she said, it’s the fact that students were “forced into online learning when they didn’t want to be,” coupled with teachers who are inexperienced and “not well trained in how to deliver their classes in online learning.”
“You can have an awesome online learning experience, and you can have a terrible online experience,” she said. “But I think during the pandemic, students have not generally had awesome online experiences, unless they were working with a teacher who already knew how to teach online.”
As a result, students become easy prey for a US$15 billion global industry specializing in “contract cheating,” Eaton said. Contract cheating is when a student outsources their assignment to someone else in exchange for a fee — in many cases, underpaid ghostwriters for companies in the business of cheating.
With little to no legislation policing their actions, these companies are free to advertise their services to students, lure them in and keep them indebted via aggressive marketing tactics and sometimes blackmail, she said.
Most Canadian research into these companies and the nature of academic misconduct in Canada is also relatively recent. “There was one big study done in Canada, maybe about 15 years ago. And since then, there’s been very little data collected in Canada on a large scale,” she said.
Eaton, who began her own study into academic cheating in 2015, will be presenting her research at this week’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.
Pre-pandemic modelling, she said, suggested that over 75,000 students in Canada’s post-secondary institutions engaged in contract cheating. It’s too early to say what that number will look like post-pandemic but it’s safe to say, it’s gotten much bigger.
Going online makes it easier for students to cheat, intentionally or unintentionally, through certain behaviours that dominate digital interactions — the tendency to share for example, Eaton posited.
People online share everything, ranging from memes and photos to status updates, which could very well translate to sharing academic work and test answers. “Many educators made an assumption that students wouldn’t share online. And yet, all of us share online all the time,” she said.
It also makes it easier for companies in the business of cheating to percolate within post-secondary groups, on social media, carefully crafting messages to appeal to those struggling with homework under the weight of the pandemic.
“These companies are doing direct marketing outreach to students via Instagram, by a TikTok video, via Youtube,” she said, all the while using a rhetoric meant to comfort stressed out students.
” ‘We will help you, we will support you, we will give you a COVID discount. Your school is open from 8:30 to 4:30, we’re there for you 24/7,’ ” Eaton lists as some examples of the messaging students receive from these companies.
“They use words like ‘help’,” she said. “But what they mean is we’ll do it on behalf of the student.”
Payments are made online, usually with the help of a credit card. Personal contact details are exchanged in the process, subtly roping the unwitting student to the company to whom they’ve outsourced their homework.
And once students are reeled in, they’re kept tightly bound. With their email addresses and phone numbers on record, companies continue to ‘badger’ the students to plagiarize their schoolwork. Texts are sent within seven days of the last assignment.
Some companies continue to withdraw monthly payments from the student’s credit card as part of a “subscription fee” and threaten to report the student to their school for cheating if the student attempts to cancel their card.
It’s similar to industries selling illegal drugs or participating in organized crime, Eaton said. “Students might think doing it once isn’t so bad, or they’re experimental … especially it’s being pushed on them quite aggressively. And then find themselves not being able to get away from these companies.”
Countries like New Zealand, Ireland, Australia are already ahead of the game, with legislation making it illegal for contract cheating businesses to operate.
U.K. is catching up, having tabled similar legislation.
But Canada has been slow to address the problem, Eaton said. Relying on publicly available institutional data as well as anecdotes from fellow colleagues, she has been leading a national policy initiative analyzing the spread of contract cheating in Canadian universities and colleges.
Looking over the academic integrity policies of 80 different institutions, she and her team found only two mentions of contract cheating. “If they’re not naming the problem, we’re not solving the problem,” she said.
While most institutions include academic misconduct policies, they’re often antiquated and inconsistent. “So the way one university defines plagiarism is totally different from the way another university defines plagiarism,” she said.
Deciding on a nationwide framework used by all universities and colleges in Canada, including a definition on contract cheating, would be the first much-needed step to addressing the issue, Eaton said.
“We need to name the problem in our policies and our procedures in schools. We need to talk to students about the real risks of engaging with these companies,” she said.
The ultimate goal would be placing Canada on par with other nations by developing legislation that criminalizes these businesses.
“The real risks are from the companies, not the universities,” she said.
Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques