Technology has made plagiarism more difficult, for example by helping to identify where pre-existing, copied material has been dishonestly presented by someone as their own work. However, the cheats have moved on and now ‘contract cheating’, where someone commissions a third party to produce an original written piece which is then dishonestly presented as coursework, is a significant problem that universities are grappling with.
In what is promised to be the first of a series of interventions across the higher education sector, Damian Hinds challenged PayPal to stop processing payments for the third-party ‘essay mills’ that produce such written work. He also targeted Google and Facebook, which could be hosts for essay mills’ adverts, in his pledge to preserve and champion the quality of the UK’s higher education system.
This challenge, in March, to the tech giants to stop promoting and facilitating essay writing services appears to have had some effect, with Google removing adverts for essay mills and Paypal blocking payments to these firms. But as I predicted at the time, these firms have merely adapted, replacing some of the more blatant promotional material with adverts for bespoke essay writing services.
We hear much about the powerful artificial intelligence (AI) employed by these companies, but the reality is that if they fail to prevent obvious images and discussion of self-harm from being widely shared; how would they be able to identify and deal with far more subtle adverts and promotional material?
But the second part of Hinds’ statement in March did resonate with me: his call for education providers to introduce honour codes and to leverage the strong cultural power of peer pressure within the academic community. After all, students are not only cheating themselves, but also each other.
What may be less obvious is that technology can play a strong role in cementing that ‘community power’.
I am not talking here about students suspected of using essay mills ‘trolling’ each other online, reverting to the digital equivalent of the lynch mob that we see in other walks of life. Rather, we may employ ‘nudge techniques’ like those found in popular apps - from Duolingo to our own learning analytics service - to promote the positive benefits and expectations of integrity to students.
I am reminded of the words of Gill Rowell, of plagiarism detection tech company Turnitin, that academic integrity is a learned skill that needs to be reinforced throughout education. Tools like Turnitin’s Authorship Investigate now provide a means of identifying coursework that may have been produced by a student through an essay mill; but institutions are also recognising that the balance needs to shift from risk detection at final assessment time to positive reinforcement from university registration.
In an age when almost all student essays are submitted electronically, the ‘sticks’ of online plagiarism detection and digital writing style ‘fingerprint’ evaluation can be effectively complemented by the ‘carrots’ of nudge technology and greater integration of academic integrity issues into the curriculum and face-to-face teaching.
In this way, humans and technology can come together and provide an unbeatable solution to this problem.
The topic for our recent Horizons group meeting (27 June 2019) - where we discussed how emerging technologies can tackle the biggest challenges in education - focused on the future of assessment in universities and colleges. This covered how susceptible assessment is to cheating, including the growing use of essay mills.
We also recently challenged university staff and students to come up with ideas of how to stop students cheating and handing in assignments that are not their own work. And if you have any ideas of how to tackle this problem, we’d be delighted to hear them - please email us with your suggestions for how we can beat the cheats.
About the Author
Dr Phil Richards is the Chief Innovation Officer at Jisc.
Phil has a first degree in physics and doctorate in nuclear structure physics (with experiments undertaken at CERN) from University of Oxford. His early career was in e-learning, with roles at Cardiff University, University of Hull and King’s College London. He then transitioned into senior management, with positions at Aberystwyth University, University of Plymouth and most recently Director of IT at Loughborough University.
Phil is responsible for developing new national Jisc services including data & analytics, research data and repositories, AR/VR, and AI-driven next-generation digital learning.