Disrupting the Classroom

How the sharing economy is creating a marketplace for cheating.

Illustration by Jaime Zollars.

For two years, Nicole has worked full-time as live-in caretaker for her centenarian grandmother. Looking to make a little extra cash, she signed up last September with Studypool “an online marketplace that connects students with questions with tutors who can answer them.” An Uber for tutors, if you will.

Nicole created a profile, submitted copies of her driver’s license and unofficial college transcripts, and joined the ranks of independent contractors powering the on-demand economy. Within six hours, she was in business, browsing questions posted by a vast diaspora of students connected via a convenient sharing platform. She quickly came across a request from a college engineering student — represented by a Spongebob Squarepants avatar—looking for help with his calculus homework. Nicole bid five bucks and got the gig.

“He gave me the login for his online math class,” Nicole says. “At first I was like, OK, I have to go see what the problems are, and this is the easiest way to go see them. So I asked, ‘Where do you want to start?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I just need you to do the assignment for me.’”

This Spongebob-looking fellow couldn’t have known that he was making his request to an especially scrupulous and qualified tutor. With a double degree in math and physics, Nicole has tutored professionally since age 17. She politely refused and offered to help him through the assignment — like a tutor would. “He was very mad,” Nicole says. “I got my $5, but he gave me a very low rating because I did not complete his assignment for him. I told him that I felt like I held up my end of what I said I would do, but he was not having it.”

Nicole wasn’t just unlucky. Studypool, one of a bevy of on-demand tutoring platforms entering the ed-tech landscape in the past couple years, is being used as a vibrant marketplace for cheating and plagiarism.

Browsing through the bids posted on Studypool is revealing — it’s not uncommon to see students expecting to have their assignments fully completed in exchange for money. Everything from high school math quizzes to college-level essays. Negative reviews for tutors indicate that the work they did for the student got a bad grade or was flagged as suspicious. “Failed my paper because 56 percent was plagiarized,” reads one. Well-reviewed tutors are those whose work passes undetected and gets the student a good grade.

Positive and negative reviews for a tutor on Studypool.

“I would say that 30 percent of the requests are for ‘help’ versus completing assignments,” says a Studypool tutor who prefers to remain anonymous, and adds that about 10 percent of his income comes from providing answers through the platform. “It is largely a place for students to cheat. I think it is a sad commentary on the U.S. education system that this practice is ‘needed’ and has a large following. That being said, there were times in my college career I would have killed to have someone do a tricky assignment for me.”

Cheating is nothing new, of course. And this is not about railing against one particular startup whose product is, wittingly or not, being misused. It is about asking whether and how the nature of Silicon Valley market innovations may be at odds with the goals or values of education. While teachers and school districts struggle to find cost-effective technologies that can reliably improve the quality of learning, the sharing economy is insinuating itself into the classroom with little accountability for the outcome.

Screen capture from a Studypool user.

Uber set an example that many are lining up to follow. Eager startups, often moved by waves of venture capital and a mandate to unleash new, technologically lubricated market models, are disrupting everything from haircuts to personal security to legal advice. Online and on-demand platforms have already transformed education: Khan Academy, Teachers Pay Teachers, and various versions of the Uber-for-tutors notion. Some argue private companies should open and run innovative schools of their own. With so much disruption — the jury is out on what the net impact of it all will be on learning.

Education Meets Silicon Values

“We believe in foregoing the legacy methods of tutoring. If a question is the barrier to learning, why not simply address that specific question directly?” —Studypool’s blog

Founded in 2014, Studypool’s story is a familiar one: A string of fevered dorm-room hackathons forges a clever idea into a viable software product. In a few short months, the slick networked platform draws thousands of users, attracted to its undeniable convenience and the opportunity t0 turn spare time and other “dormant assets”—a car, spare bedroom, or, in this case, academic skill — into cash. The barely 20-year-old founders take their company to the Bay Area in pursuit of hockey sticks, angels, and unicorns.

Last year, Studypool was nurtured and funded through venture accelerator 500 Startups. Richard Werbe, co-founder and CEO of Studypool, became the youngest entrepreneur in the firm’s history to fund a nascent company past $1 million, a good sign of investor faith. Though not operating at quite the stratospheric scale of other familiar on-demand platforms—Airbnb, for example, hosts more than 60 million users — Studypool is reaching and serving a sizeable market. According to TechCrunch, as of March 2015 Studypool was used by some 40,000 students and had hosted about 150,000 questions. Just under a year later, Studypool claims well over a million questions answered.

Like any properly disruptive enterprise, Studypool’s idea is compelling: Build a frictionless platform for the exchange of knowledge, allowing market forces to drive information where it’s needed faster and more reliably. People have answers, other people have questions — provide a place for them to link up. Werbe points out that the company’s ambition extends beyond providing answers to high school and college students. That’s just where the product first gained traction.

“We’re really trying to build out and prove the hypothesis that marketplaces make things more efficient, and that should apply to information as well,” Werbe tells me over the phone. “If I’m looking for help, it’s going to help if I’m willing to add a monetary incentive, which is one of the greatest incentives in the world.”

It’s pretty obvious why this model would be appealing to students who cheat. Stuck with assignments you can’t or don’t want to do, just drop a couple bucks and, in minutes, get what you need from someone willing and able to complete it for you, on your terms and on your timeline.

It also makes a lot of sense for anybody with smarts and time to spare. If they work fast, tutors have good financial incentive to make themselves available for coaching — or just providing answers — on a per-question basis.

“It’s not cheap to get private help, so for a student who needs that extra help and is struggling with homework and can afford it, getting your homework done online seems like a great idea,” Nicole says. “If I were just to do that student’s assignment for him, it would’ve taken way less time than writing out notes for how to do the problem. I could’ve done his homework in under 15 minutes. And $5 for 15 minutes? That’s not bad, $20 an hour.”

In theory, everyone wins. Competition to answer a question rewards timeliness, and wait times have been driven down to under three minutes.

Studypool gets a 20 percent cut of each transaction. And nobody benefitting from the service — customer or consumer — has much reason to complain about its possible ill effects.

Screenshot from Studypool.

Rarely is the sharing model of enterprise, epitomized by the likes of Uber and Airbnb, sensitive to the costs incurred by its host system — those two companies are hardly compelled to preserve the integrity of the “legacy” cab companies and hoteliers they are undercutting. Likewise, success for this platform isn’t determined by whether it actually helps people learn. After all, optimizing and reducing the latency in busing information from one place to another makes sense — a lot of sense — for servers and data, but where brains and ideas are concerned, learning isn’t always efficient. And any approach that offers a backdoor — knowingly or not—where intellectual honesty is concerned is bound to reap the patronage of the many people willing to buy an answer or grade rather than earn it.

Sharing Economy, Shirking Responsibility

The list of variations for on-demand tutelage is long and diverse: Tutor.com, WyzAnt, StudyRoom, TutorPanda, Tutorpace. Tutree arranges in-person meetings between tutors and students. Chegg Tutors offers live help via video chat. Attempts at hot-wiring a new market by connecting students to tutors run the gamut, from absolute free-marketeering on one end to models that more or less mimic the one-on-one dynamic of private tutors or school district–endorsed efforts on the other.

Something all of these tutoring-related startups seem to share is their assertion of an honor code, acknowledgement that their tool might be put to, but is certainly not meant for, academic misuse. But something else they share is a disconnect from the structures of accountability that we usually expect will keep students academically honest.

Buy an honor code. Screen capture from Studypool.

Cheating on a chemistry test could get you reprimanded or expelled from high school or college, but that’s basically up to the particular school or district. If you’re caught taking someone else’s SATs, you might face charges. But unlike the friend who sat next to you in the administrator’s office to explain why you colluded on an exam, no online tutor or startup CEO will likely take any heat for helping you cheat.

In the case of Studypool, accountability is limited also by the encryption of students’ and tutors’ identities and interactions. (Its user privacy page states, “Private questions cannot be found by Search engines… or by applications/software looking for duplicate content and plagiarism.”)

Studypool did not provide any numbers related to cases of academic dishonesty on their platform. It’s something the company apparently isn’t too worried about. “Right now, we don’t really see it as a very common problem,” Werbe tells me.

The true extent of its misuse is beside the point anyway. The question is what responsibility a company has to ensure its product or platform does not become a go-to for academic dishonesty. Many students certainly benefit from using Studypool as a legitimate learning aid. Academic dishonesty is probably not what this or any other educational startup sets out to build a business on, but neither do they seem able to prevent it from happening.

Werbe says Studypool has worked with (unnamed) schools in crafting its honor code. But that honor code doesn’t seem to have any teeth beyond the risk of a user’s account being suspended. Judging from how many accounts have yet to be closed for cheating, this is not the solution. Students will face real consequences only if a teacher or administrator catches them taking advantage of an easy leg up. Same as always.

In any event, should a platform be held responsible for users’ miscreant behavior?

“Very relevant to a school setting, people in the past have just copied and pasted information from Wikipedia,” says Werbe. “Ultimately, Wikipedia can’t really stop that. But they can take steps; the schools can take steps. There have been tools created to monitor if students are doing that, but at the end of the day, I think accountability lies with the students and the school itself. It’s not something we support, if they do use [Studypool] for mal intent, and we will take it down if it’s reported.”

A Welcome Disruption

The notion of powerful online sharing platforms becoming a tool for undermining academic integrity is naturally worrisome. It would be nice to be able to point to some solution — to a mechanism or agency that can step in to prevent an on-demand model from enabling academic dishonesty. In truth, however, cheating has been around for a long time and is unlikely to go away, regardless of technology. Self-reported cheating rates in the United States have been alarmingly high for decades, upwards of 75 percent among high school students in recent years.

Technology has long played a dual role in both enabling and preventing academic malfeasance. As Werbe noted, Wikipedia is potent as a learning resource and a temptation for stressed-out students. Turnitin.com, a system feared by plagiarizers for its ability to catch lifted content, constantly updates its algorithms to keep up with students who find ways to trick it.

One professor I spoke to noted a colleague who forgoes tests altogether because of rampant plagiarism from online sources, instead having conversations with each student at the end of a section to assess their comprehension.

“When you look at the means of cheating, I think the arms race is an apt analogy — it describes the fact that there is always going to be a back and forth,” says Jim Lang, professor of English at Assumption College and author of Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. “The story most people hear — that cheating is getting worse because of technology — we just don’t have any data to back that up.”

Ultimately, it seems that what drives people to an on-demand platform, as user and service provider, is the same thing that drives a student to cheat: cost-benefit analysis. Lang points to grade-oriented educational environments themselves, where cheating is rooted in the fact that moving on, rather than moving on with new knowledge, is what’s at stake for students. “Anytime you have people competing against each other for external rewards, and it’s high stakes, you’re going to have cheating,” Lang says. “I think it’s a good idea for faculty to establish classrooms as communities of learners, rather than as just sort of information-transfer spaces.”

A startup plying its platform into profitability makes no illusions about trying to solve the problems in the systems they’re upending. Indeed, they can stand to benefit from those problems. Plenty of students already cheat, but if there’s an app or online platform that allows bypassing coursework in a way that’s cheap and fast and largely risk-free, what’s to stop such a model from becoming the norm? That’s a disturbing thought, and what’s being disrupted is no mere market.

“A lot of people, especially in America, really rely on the idea of education as the potential equalizer that ensures a meritocracy, that people can prove themselves in school and get ahead and get good jobs,” says Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. “Education has played a massive, fantastic role in enabling people to rise socioeconomically, but it’s not an inevitable thing, and it’s something that is very much under threat now with the privatization of education and trends like this. So the idea that education is this great equalizer may no longer be true in the same way, and that’s deeply worrying.”

Can a frictionless market actually lead to gains for learning itself? These startups will tell you yes, but that’s easy to say. Airbnb would much prefer not to talk about its users’ malfeasance, preferring to focus on how many renters and communities around the world it “empowers.” You might hear, as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg asked when bestowing his company’s “free” internet access to rural India, “Who could possibly be against this?

Education is clearly susceptible to new technologies and markets. With that comes the opportunity to encourage models that will result in gains for learning. We are all stakeholders in our education system. We should feel incentivized to explore how new technologies and market models could be made to elevate education, not game it. After all, the sharing economy has already entered the classroom, and we should demand it to behave.

Illustration by Jaime Zollars for Bright.

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