Cheating at university is boomtime for some students

There’s no doubt that the worldwide pivot to online education is impacting the conduct and credibility of teaching and learning in universities. For the lucky few, those who have been supported by state-of-the-art digital infrastructure for decades, there has been little impact on quality of delivery. But, for most institutions, this new frontier presents new challenges.

High on the list is the growth of online services that help students cheat. Once referred to as ‘ghost writing’ and seen as almost respectable, using the services of someone else to prepare assignments or sit exams, has become a full-blown industry now and is commonly referred to as contract cheating. The systems and protocols for achieving this have also become smarter, leaving plagiarism software behind the curve.

Of course, history is replete with examples of examinees trying to outwit the system. Research we recently conducted at Charles Darwin University details some of this history, as well as the growing scope and scale of the problem. In related research from Australia, the problem is reported to be as high as 10% of students when the method of investigation is supported by ‘incentivised truth-telling’.

It’s a serious enough issue for regulators to also be publishing resources such as an academic integrity toolkit to help combat the problem. And some governments have now passed legislation making it an offence to advertise academic cheating services, with penalties of up to $100,000 being applied. But a digital environment that thrives on anonymity and promotes conspiracy theories seems to provide ample scope for anyone intent on cheating the system.

A cheating boom

Our research shows a spike in provision of services following the rapid transition to digital delivery that many institutions have had to navigate. For example, a simple Google search for the term ‘assignment help’ returned 279 million results in mid-June 2020 and 302 million in early 2021. A search for ‘online exam help’ returned 538 million results in mid-June 2020 and 559 million in early 2021. This constitutes 8% growth and 4% growth respectively within less than one year.

A search today confirms the trajectory moving in only one direction. Of course, as much as it would like to be, Google is not comprehensive and is just an indicator.

Contract cheating services and accompanied advertising are evolving quickly and are ably supported by the immediacy and anonymity of social media platforms, gig economy websites and even old-fashioned announcements around the campus in languages other than English.

Serious consequences

There’s a race to the bottom where contract cheating is concerned, and its impact is multi-dimensional.

It is not just a question of cheating the system to get a credential. There are consequences to the student, university, profession and wider community. What if a nurse rostered to look after you in a life-threatening illness managed to avoid learning the detailed protocols necessary? Or a structural engineer skipped on learning the theory of stability and dynamics? What if a lawyer you are paying does not know the remedies in contract law? Choose any industry and ask a similar question.

There are also consequences for families who fund their children’s education (particularly when the student is caught out), the reputation of academics who report and do not report such behaviours and a decline in workplace skills and the reputation of some universities.

Solutions to the problem are likely to be a mix of regulatory control and the implementation of ‘smart’ software that uses artificial intelligence (AI), although there’s nothing to stop the creativity of cheating services to likewise harness the capabilities of AI in a contest of who can outsmart whom.

A need to change how we assess students?

Among the more interesting questions emerging from this research relates to how assessments are designed and implemented in practice. Have assessment practices reliant on written work and non-invigilated exams run their course? How can assessment practices be recalibrated so that integrity and character are back in the picture? Could peer-assessment and self-assessment revolutionise core functions of contemporary teaching?

Such questions may seem unrealistic, but related research has already shown that the inclusion of oral presentations, a return to in-person invigilation and ‘completed-in-class’ assessments will be part of the solution.

What has caught our attention is that contract cheating represents just one set of behaviours supported by an increasingly complex digital environment where anonymity has been confused with liberty.

Dr Jon Mason is associate professor in education (e-learning), course coordinator, GCUTL and STEAMLab member at the College of Indigenous Futures, Education and the Arts, Charles Darwin University, Australia. Dr Guzyal Hill is a senior lecturer at the Asia Pacific College of Business & Law, Charles Darwin University, Darwin, Australia.