How do you know if your students prepared their own assignments or paid for them?

I was recently approached on Linkedin, with a proposal that I link to, and endorse, a person who prepares assignments for students. Is paid to help them cheat. A little search, and I find such companies are blossoming all over the internet. Here is an excerpt taken from the front page of one of them:

“Rather than continue to struggle through your assignments, you can place an assignment order online from a service dedicated to your success. These are only custom written assignments for sale, written by expert writers with a 24/7 support team available to you speak to when you need them. Good online assignment services don’t just provide you with writing assignments – they provide you with convenient payment methods, easy access to support, and writers with degrees and experience in your field. Do not settle for poorly written and plagiarism filled free online assignments, assignment examples and sample assignments, when you can get help from the best assignment writing service online.”

Indeed. Why be examined for your work, and show that you understand your assignment, when can pay $30 for a 2-page paper? After all, this is a small investment when the cost of an undergraduate degree is $60,000 per year? The company is proud of offering its custom assignments for undergraduate, master’s and doctoral candidates.

However great the idea of having someone else prepare your paper, handing in a paper someone else wrote and claiming you wrote it is certainly plagiarism, and fraud.

Harvard University takes a dim view of any student caught cheating: “Students who, for whatever reason, submit work either not their own or without clear attribution to its sources will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including requirement to withdraw from the College. Students who have been found responsible for any violation of these standards will not be permitted to submit a Q evaluation of the course in which the infraction occurred.”

So. Harvard will kick you out. Great incentive to not let them know you paid someone.

And who is writing these cheat assignments? A 2-page well-written A-grade assignment on any subject that pays around $30 (with 14 days notice) to upwards of $60 (overnight) may attract US writers who are extremely familiar with the subject matter, or even who teach it to university students.

Is it possible that adjunct faculty, paid $15-$50 per hour to teach a class, would write a cheat assignment that is submitted to themselves? I would say yes. The cheat companies promise excellent English, an excellent assignment. If they want repeat business and referrals they need to deliver. And I have no reason to believe they do not. Paying $30 for an assignment that is horrible seems to me the worst form of academic suicide.

My question is how to catch students who use an assignment-preparation service. The poorly paid adjunct who grades the papers may be too busy working at McDonald’s to have time to go through all submitted papers from each students and see if suddenly the syntax changes from what would be expected from a native Brooklynite to the best Mumbai English. And if all assignments are prepared by the same assignment preparer, even changes in syntax will not give away a cheater. Especially if the assignment is an electrical engineering lab report, which will be strong on formulae, short on beautifully crafted phrases.

I am thinking of ways to cut the heads off these monsters in assignments given in online classes. Here are some suggestions:

-give all students assignment at a given time, and expect them all to drop the assignments as a labeled file in a drop box within 3 hours. I have done this with my students at the Medical Writing Institute. It works.

-Require all assignments to be hand-written, scanned and emailed within the allotted time. The hand-writing needs to match up for every single assignment.

-Require all assignments to be hand-written and posted within a day of receiving the assignment. Again, the hand-writing needs to match up for every single assignment.

-Require all assignments to be typed and emailed, but the notes made in preparing the assignment be handwritten, scanned and emailed with the assignment.

-Make students write all assignments at a given location. This has the disadvantage of needing to pay for proctors and is expensive, and turns all assignments into examinations. Further, the student may pay the proctor more than you can.

-Make student write the assignment in view of the examiner in Skype. This can only work if the faculty has only a handful of students, or likes knitting.

-Upon receiving the written assignment, call the student and ask questions from the assignment. Throw away the written assignment and instead grade the student on understanding and coherence of the answers.

How serious is the problem of students pretending they understand classes when they do not? Cheating can kill. If an engineer or architect is hired to build and does not understand the processes, the building can fall down when cement is replaced with cheaper sand. Or if a steel strut is replaced with a cheaper wooden beam on a 4th floor balcony, 6 Irish students can die.

I call on colleges and universities to tighten their cheating policies. Cheating should be a criminal offense or at least a misdemeanor.





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