On the new cheating economy

The Chronicle of Higher Education has published an important story on the large industry of easily-accessible services for contract cheating, where students can order tailor-made assignments done for them. It should send chills down the spine of anyone working in higher education.

Most of us will have had those strangely well-written assignments from students whose English is not as good in emails and conversation. Maybe the sources are a little off-piste, maybe the assignment seems not to engage directly with the curriculum, even though it matches the criteria. You will wonder, but you will not have enough evidence to do anything. It leaves a bitter taste when you must let it pass, for good reasons. If assessment is the crossbeam of the credibility that holds up the value of university credentials, this is the army of worms quietly consuming it.

The Chronicle story doesn’t draw out the implications of this situation. If we education professionals don’t get more innovative about assessment, three things are likely to happen:

1) Higher education becomes suspect. 2) That suspicion will give rise to further credentialing by employers and institutions outside of academia. 3) This plays into the hands of those offering alternatives to university degrees to young people already concerned about tuition fees.

First, mass higher education becomes inherently suspect. If your credentials do not come from an institution where staff are known to work closely enough with students to ensure that there’s no chance of outsourcing the assessment items, your undergraduate or postgraduate degree will be suspect until proven otherwise.

Secondly, that suspicion will give rise to a further set of credentialing practices, common enough already, where employers will test the competency of anyone they offer a job to. We will know that the crossbeams are being eaten through when large employers will start to test routinely for the very competencies that universities are supposed to ensure.

Thirdly, alternatives to degrees become a lot more valuable if they demonstrably cannot be “gamed” through outsourcing. Apprenticeships (for school-leavers) and intensive practice-focused training courses (for graduates and professionals wanting new skills) are obvious examples here.

In the long run, our credibility rests on the quality of our assessment practices and the trust afforded to them. Right now, we are at a moment when contract cheating is no longer a niche practice, against which universities are protected by the herd-immunity of the bulk of students actually doing their own work.

There is now a mass market for cheating, driven by the same incentives and desire for convenience that have given us eBay, Uber and TaskRabbit.

It is now easy, cheap and fast to find someone on the internet who can complete coursework on time and to the required standard. Fortunately there’s a great variety of institutions and forms of assessment. Only some need to be worried about the roof collapsing anytime soon. Which ones will hold up depends on how willing they are to refurbish the crossbeams to make them unpalatable to those making a meal of them.

For more: Read Brad Wolverton’s excellent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.