Last spring, Professor Brian Frye of University of Kentucky Law School published a paper on plagiarism titled Illegitimacy of Plagiarism Norms. Professor Frye’s spicy abstract commenced as follows:
On Thursday, March 19, shortly before midnight and fortified by bourbon, I asked Alvin Emoodo of youressaymaster.com to ghostwrite an article for me. Here is what I asked him to write: “I’d like you to write an article explaining why plagiarism norms are illegitimate and not justified. Among other things, it can argue that plagiarism norms are not really intended to benefit readers, but to benefit authors. And it can argue that plagiarism norms benefit established authors at the expense of new authors. But be creative!”
As Frye relates, three days later, shortly before midnight, “Alvin” transmitted a paper that included dictionary definitions, contradictory statements like “all plagiarism norms are illegitimate and not justified” (suggested by Frye) and plagiarism “is a crime… [that] earns plagiarisms undeserved awards such as academic certificates,” as well as a bizarre story about a poet whose work was plagiarized and “spent languid afternoons at home… thinking about his ‘thief’ when he should have been writing poems.” All in no particular order. Frye then delivers the punch line: “I paid Alvin $50 up front and $50 on delivery. In my opinion, it was money well-spent.”
While Professor Frye resisted the temptation to pass off someone else’s work as his own, many students aren’t as steadfast. Academic integrity is yet another victim of the pandemic and shift to remote learning. Cheating scandals have emerged at Georgia Tech, CSU, Boston University, West Point, and dozens of other colleges and universities. And while faculty sensitivity to cheating may have increased over the past year (resulting in better detection and reporting), the driver is simply more cheating. Institutions have seen academic dishonesty reports increase from 20-100%. In a recent edition of the Inside Higher Education podcast The Key, Bradley Davis, the associate director of the office of student conduct at NC State, reported 900 academic integrity cases from March to December of last year – up from less than 300 in the 2018-19 academic year.
The reasons are clear. Students are learning remotely, away from peers and social norms. Many students are under increased stress, whether for financial, health, or family reasons. But most important, technology has made cheating easier than ever.
Faculty have been playing a 25-year game of Whack-a-mole with technology-assisted cheating. When “model” term papers were first posted online – first in the hundreds, then in the hundreds of thousands – Turnitin was the first tech fix, detecting plagiarism by matching submitted papers against a terrifying database that monstrously absorbed all newly submitted work.
As online learning grew and millions of students began pursuing degrees at a distance, the next problem was exam integrity. As convenience – the opportunity to study on evenings and weekends in pajamas and bunny slippers – was the primary appeal of online degrees (not price, sadly, due to the floor set by Title IV loans and grants), it seemed incongruous to demand that students visit a nearby testing center. The tech fix for this was a new industry: online proctoring. Companies like Examity began offering live and automated proctoring solutions, seemingly solving the problem, but making many students feel like they’re learning in a panopticon.
Still, it all felt manageable before Covid and the migration online. The shift to remote learning brought a new category of cheating into focus: study sites. Chegg is the 800 lb. gorilla of study sites with a search bar that invites students to “find solutions for your homework.” 3.7M students now pay $14.95 per month for access to Chegg Study and its database of 46 million textbook and exam problems. If students can’t find a solution in the database, they can chat with subject matter experts who supply step-by-step answers 24/7. Of 52 students interviewed by Forbes, 48 admitted they use Chegg to cheat. Some reported using Chegg to cheat on online proctored exams.
Technology has made cheating easier than ever
If the academic enterprise feels shaky now, wait and see what emerging technology has in store. Essay mills are hacking university systems to more credibly market their wares to wary students. And while services like youressaymaster.com and writemypapers.org (a questionable .org if there ever was one) have always been willing to sell Alvin-level dribble, customized cheating comes at a price – typically $10-20 per page. But prices are coming down as AI (artificial intelligence) poses a further challenge to AI (academic integrity). EdSurge recently reported on algorithmically-generated term papers from services like EssaySoft (“Generate all your essays or articles with our all-in-one essay software”). The company’s EssayMaster product handles “everything from the research for your paper, to all the rewrites, and also your references.” AI promises to level the cheating playing field; custom papers will no longer be the sole province of wealthy students. But even at a time of unprecedented focus on inequality, I doubt that’s the problem we’re trying to solve.
Colleges and universities have responded by doubling down on academic integrity. Amanda McKenzie, Director of Quality Assurance for Academic Programs at University of Waterloo in Canada says universities “need to raise the importance of integrity, role model it, and promote it on their campuses – at every level.” NC State has communicated not only with students, but also with parents.
Academic integrity is necessary, but unfortunately insufficient given the scope of the challenge. In an era of one-click cheating, here are three things higher education institutions should do to regain the trust of all constituents – parents, students, faculty, staff, and employers:
1) Sunset point-in-time summative assessments
In a few years, we may look back at 2020’s forced shift to remote learning as the death knell for the classic midterm + final model. Infrequent high-stakes tests are less burdensome for faculty, but remote summative assessments are most susceptible to cheating. As David Rettinger of University of Mary Washington noted on The Key, “If you’re going to give a 50 question multiple choice test, that’s pretty much the most cheatable possible assignment online. Even if you just change that to 10 five-question multiple choice quizzes, you’ve made it less likely that students will cheat, because you’ve reduced the stakes and the pressure.” Midterms and finals should be supplanted by frequent formative assessments.
2) Assess across the pathway/degree
In order to determine whether students are learning, we need more time. Just as a single point-in-time assessment can easily obscure whether a student’s work is authentic, so can a single course. But if we assess the body of a student’s work over an entire degree program or pathway, all becomes clear. Professors should be able to easily compare a student’s work – and the cognitive and communication skills revealed therein – with work a semester, a year, or three years ago. Doing so requires shifting higher education’s unit of measure from the course to the pathway or degree. From time immemorial, college has consisted of discrete, disconnected, severable steps. One result is serendipity. But others are low completion rates, underemployment, and now cheating. Sequential courses should have a logical connection across key cognitive and non-cognitive skills. Just as shifting the focus from summative to formative assessments necessitates new thinking and additional work on the part of faculty, widening the frame from individual courses to pathways and degrees will require much more structure and intentionality.
3) More work-integrated learning
We’re not hearing about a rash of cheating scandals at work (not even remote work). You wouldn’t hire Alvin Emoodo to manage a product launch or build a budget for your company. The reason: specificity. Business and organization challenges and projects vary; employers don’t ask their employees to complete the same assignments year after year. (And if they do, they won’t be for long; these employees are most susceptible to being replaced by the other AI.) Applying critical thinking skills in the context of a specific problem faced by a real organization shifts an assignment from plain vanilla to unique, which radically increases cheating degree of difficulty. So amping up the frequency and scope of work-integrated learning goes a long way to combatting cheating.
What do all three ingredients have in common? Frequent formative assessments, assessing across the pathway, and work-integrated learning all require technology to scale. Providers like Top Hat allow faculty to easily embed formative assessments into courses. Other formative assessment leaders include iClicker, Echo360, Turning Technologies, and CourseKey. Schools like Ponce Health Sciences University leverage technology to conduct formative assessments every day in every class as part of a “dynamic classroom.” (Disclosure: my firm, University Ventures, has an investment in Ponce.) Assessing across the pathway or degree necessitates ePortfolios like Instructure’s Portfolium. And scaling work-integrated learning requires next-generation school-work marketplaces like Riipen.
Another thing all three have in common is that they bring colleges and universities a bit closer to the way the rest of the world works. Only in the movies is someone’s career made on the basis of a single memo or presentation. In the real world, performance is evaluated daily, across hundreds of deliverables and interactions, and then over a period of years. So it may be a good thing that cheating technology has made point-in-time summative assessments anachronistic. Getting rid of the midterm + final model may be hard for colleges and faculty, but it will be good for students.
One of my more memorable recent Zoom meetings included two participants who’d both selected the Golden Gate Bridge as their Zoom backgrounds. “You should really meet up,” I suggested. Unfortunately, one was in Pennsylvania and the other in Dubai. Technology has made it infinitely easier to cheat; you’re not always where (or who) you say you are.
In the past the answer to technology-assisted cheating has been new technologies like Turnitin and Examity. But we need more than that now. The most effective technology solutions also require business changes. Think of Salesforce, Workday, or Epic, the leading electronic health record system for hospitals. These SaaS platforms are designed according to best practice business processes. Taking full advantage of new technology requires conforming to these practices. If you don’t, you’re not getting the bang for your technology buck.
In higher education, reducing reliance on point-in-time summative assessments, assessing across the pathway, and work-integrated learning are a better recipe: best practices to prevent cheating, sure, but primarily to promote learning. If enough colleges are willing to do this work, we’ll have less cheating, more learning, and the youressaymaster.com business will slow sufficiently to give Alvin time to think before he writes. So I look forward to his $100 essay that argues more or less coherently that plagiarism norms are legitimate and justified.
I am the author of College Disrupted (2015) and A New U: Faster Cheaper Alternatives to College (2018). I’m also an investor reimagining the future of higher education