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May 18, 2021

The challenges of contract cheating in education and solutions to overcome them

Why has contract cheating increased during the pandemic, what does this trend mean for teachers, and how can they detect it?

By Keri Beckingham

(This post first appeared in ET: https://edtechnology.co.uk/he-and-fe/challenges-of-contract-cheating-in-education-solutions-to-overcome-them/)

As the COVID-19 pandemic looks set to continue impacting education well into this year at least, with home schooling and remote learning remaining commonplace across the board, one area that educators are particularly keen to maintain is academic integrity.

Contract cheating is something that has, unfortunately, become more and more commonplace since 2020, with students choosing to be academically dishonest just to get ahead. But in these uncertain times, it has become increasingly important for schools, colleges and universities to ensure that learning disruption is minimised for their students, and also that high academic standards with essays and assessments remain consistent.

If you have ever wondered what contract cheating is and how you can detect it in your school, college or university, read on to find out more.

What is contract cheating?

Did you know that the term ‘contract cheating’ was first established in 2007 by Clarke and Lancaster  as part of a paper entitled, Eliminating the successor to plagiarism? Identifying the usage of contract cheating sites.

Contract cheating is a method of academic dishonesty, in which students engage a third-party to write and produce an essay or assignment on their behalf and then submit this for assessment.

There are several different types to be aware of; for example, a student may choose to swap a paper with another student, they may ask a family member or a friend to write it for them as part of an unpaid favour, they may download a free assignment from an essay site, or pay an essay mill to produce the essay for them for a fee.

Watch the webinar on-demand here. Presented by Education Technology, University Business and Ouriginal: https://www.ouriginal.com/on-demand-webinar-how-to-identify-and-deter-ghost-writing/

Why has contract cheating increased during the pandemic?

In 2020, the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) produced guidance for UK higher education providers to help them protect academic integrity and combat the use of essay mills in their institutions. This followed the discovery that the pandemic had “accelerated” the growth of contract cheating, with a reported 904 essay mills known to be providing ghost-written assignments for students.

Commenting further on the issue, Douglas Blackstock, QAA CEO said: “The essay mill industry has become increasingly sophisticated, and exists to make money by encouraging students to cheat. Students at every university or college in the UK will be targeted by them.”

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan also added: “This is a difficult time for students, and those who are feeling particularly worried about their studies could be more vulnerable to essay mills marketing right now. It is abhorrent for these companies to take advantage of students in this situation and profit from anxiety during a global pandemic.”

Once of the biggest outcomes of students studying remotely for the majority of the last 12 months has been that the temptation and potential opportunity to submit dishonest essays and assignments has increased, due to not having to go to campus and having limited interaction with teaching staff. As a result, submitting a ghost-written essay, turning to plagiarism or using the help of others is something that has become more commonplace, as students have more freedom from studying at home and are able to copy/paste information from the internet and collude more easily, believing that there will be limited chance of detection.

Why contract cheating is a challenge?

For teaching staff, the threat of contract cheating presents a huge challenge and is disrupting student learning on a daily basis as a result. However, there’s also an opportunity to uphold academic integrity by verifying the authorship and evaluating the originality of an essay or assignment, as well as reminding students of why producing their own work is so important. If they think that teaching staff and educators don’t care about the threat, they are, of course, mistaken.

Contract cheating dismisses the learning process completely. In education, teachers are committed to helping their students develop certain skills – especially critical thinking and creativity, which cannot be gained if students are using third parties to produce their work for them. However, by reinforcing staff awareness of what contract cheating is and the signs to look out for, there’s less chance of students thinking that they will be able to ‘get away with it’ and academic outcomes will be maximised as a result.

There are many reasons why students choose to use contract cheating for their assignments, including lack of academic confidence, stress and time pressures and lack of motivation. As teachers, it’s important to regularly check in with students to understand the reasons why their ability to learn and study might be impacted, and offer support and guidance before contract cheating becomes a tempting option.

On top of checking the rough drafts of a student’s work before it’s submitted to check for any signs of suspicious activity, contract cheating prevention technology can also help educators easily detect whether an essay has been submitted fraudulently. This provides both teaching staff and students with total peace of mind and ensures that academic integrity is upheld.

How can teachers detect contract cheating?

Thankfully, there are options available for teachers and lecturers who want to ensure that students’ assessments are produced and submitted honestly and securely, and help to avoid the risk of contract cheating occurring.

For example, Ouriginal’s contract cheating prevention technology uses ‘metrics’ to analyse a group of student essays from the same class in a birds-eye-view format. Using preliminary data to suggest a Gaussian distribution for the metrics, it will reveal that the majority of students will be clustered in the middle of the values, and there will only be a few high and low scoring students in comparison.

From this, it’s possible to consider that students in the low scoring area will be low-performing and therefore won’t be flagged for further inspection. However, high scoring students will be flagged for comparison against a series of measures, to establish whether any suspicious activity has taken place.

The need to ensure that essays and assignments are produced and submitted with integrity is something that will never change in education, irrespective of the uncertainty that schools, colleges and universities are facing as a result of COVID-19. With remote learning set to continue for the foreseeable, it’s still extremely important for staff to be aware of the signs of contract cheating, remind students of the reasons why they should avoid plagiarism and have the tools in place to analyse any suspicious activity if needed. Not only will this help to ensure that both students and teaching staff have the tools they need to get ahead, but it will also protect your institution’s reputation, too.

To find out more about cheating prevention tools, please click here.

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