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Digital Detox #4: A Case Study of Suck

A subtitle of sorts: Contract Cheating and Equity, Data, and Algorithms.

Today we’re going to talk a little bit about contract cheating and a lot about what contract cheating tells us about the problems endemic to our relationship to technology. I’ve chosen this as a focus not only because it is a massive growth-area of bad news, but because it’s an issue where everything we have talked about to this point — equity, data, and algorithms — all interact to become a veritable Case Study of Suck. Of all the posts in the Digital Detox, today’s is the most exclusively geared at students and educators, but if you know and love students and/or educators, or you care about what student learning looks like in 2020, I think there’s a lot here for you, too. I might be biased, but I find this stuff fascinating.

If you’re not familiar with contract cheating, oh, you sweet summer child. I was once like you. I used to think of violations of academic integrity as the usual stuff: cheating off a neighbour in an exam, handing in your roommate’s essay, trying to pass off a history paper you wrote in the next semester’s Canadian Studies class. Sure, sometimes people got creative — when I was an undergraduate at Carleton University, they had to ban water bottles from exam rooms because one entrepreneurial fellow was printing and selling bottle labels that looked for all the world like the Dasani logo but were really secreting away exam responses in tiny font — but in general, you’ve got a person doing something they shouldn’t, and likely as not getting caught for it. Everyone is in the same room, or at least the same city. There might be a middleman involved, but that person is also physically present. It’s cheating. It’s bad. But it happens, we catch it, there’s a very special episode lesson to be learned, punishments are meted out, and we all move on with our lives.

And then, there’s contract cheating. This is cheating that takes the form of students hiring third parties — sometimes across the globe — to submit one or all of their assignments in a class for them. Contract cheating is not a situation of a bunch of goofballs making dopey choices: it’s a business. And yes, with enough money, students of means have always been able to pay a classmate to do their work (it’s certainly the plot of at least ten teen films that I can think of), but now the gig economy and the easy ability to transfer data means that people perhaps in Kenya are earning comparatively small amounts of money to produce intellectual labour which is then sold to desperate students in North America and Europe, particularly in English-speaking countries, for big profits. It’s hard to track by traditional means either pedagogical (if every assignment in a course is created by someone else, you have no grounds for comparison as the instructor) or technological (indeed, these companies are very proud of the fact that they get high originality scores on Turnitin because, of course, the work is original — the student just isn’t the person who wrote it). And there’s probably more of it, even than we think.

Conversations about contract cheating is on the rise in a big way, and if its tidal wave of panic and whispered hallway conversations hasn’t hit your corner of the world yet, know that it’s coming. Studies show that it’s a problem everywhere, whether students are taking classes online or face-to-face, whether students are domestic or international, and across program areas.

So what does this have to do with a Digital Detox, you might be asking at this point. Fair question. I think the success of these contract cheating companies has a lot to do with the failures of ethics in how technology is used both generally, and in education in particular. I’ve got some thoughts on how we got ourselves into this mess, and how we might actually get ourselves out again (hint: it has to do with teaching). Let’s work backwards from Tuesday’s post.


One of the things that shocked me most about learning about these contract cheating firms is that they don’t wait for students to go looking for them. They phish for students in incredibly predatory ways, using algorithmic processing to track students on social media and pounce when they are most vulnerable. If your institution has a hashtag it uses to collect student posts on social media, go troll it for a little while, especially around midterms and finals. You’ll quickly find these companies using institutional hashtags to reach students, often cloaking their services in terms of “editing” or “tutoring” or “help.” It’s easy, especially if you’re not versed in institutional branding, to see some of these posts and wonder if they’re legitimately connected to the institution itself.

And the companies also use these hashtags to track students as potential customers. They particularly like to use combinations of hashtags that pair a specific institution with words expressing affective experiences of student stress: #essaydue #finalsstress #essayhelp. So a student who is looking to commisserate with classmates on Instagram who uses the hashtag for her institution and, maybe, #freakingout #paperdue #needhelp, sends a batsignal not only for her classmates, but also for predatory contract cheating firms who sweep in to her direct messages at the last moment and offer “assistance.” (We collected a whack of these memes and viral images for BC Academic Integrity Day back in the fall, and you can check them out in our archive of the day.)

Listen, I’m not trying to pretend that it’s ever okay to hire someone else to write your paper for you. And I definitely am aware that there are students out there paying their way through credentialing programs without doing a lick of work. But given the huge numbers that the onslaught of contract cheating represents, that can’t be all of the cases. I’m not even persuaded that it could be most of the cases. Students are targeted by predatory companies when they are at their most panicked and most stressed out, and it’s a form of quote-unquote “help” that they can access when they are at that lowest point — say, 2 am the morning before a paper is due — when legitimate resources like learning centres and campus tutors and office hours aren’t available. 

Contract cheating is wrong. Preying on vulnerable students, and profiting off their misery, is more wrong. 

(This is an aside, but many for-profit EdTech companies prey on faculty at their most vulnerable moments, too, making inquiries at the beginning and end of semester when tensions are highest and demands are many. As the precarity of the academic workforce increases and demands on instructor time do, too, this practice is only on the rise. These pitches invariably promise miraculous time-saving measures or huge improvements in student engagement. And they come directly to faculty rather than to an office like ours, which might mean they encounter less resistance or fewer questions. There are resources to help you with decisions like this — and often alternative, open-source, or already secured and vetted options that someone like me can help you with. Here at TRU, we have a whole team. Don’t hesitate to reach out.)

Data Privacy

So, it gets worse. 

Contract cheating companies also prey on those students who are not particularly data savvy, and it’s another reason why helping students to understand issues of data privacy is so essential. In addition to having student credit card or other payment information, these companies also often collect additional identifying information, like SINs and home addresses, making the students vulnerable to identity theft. Contract cheating companies also engage in extortion, threatening students who try to extract themselves from the relationship that they will report them to their instructor or institution if they don’t continue to receive payments — indeed, contract cheaters are pretty regularly caught by companies who turn in their customers for non-payment of bills (frequently enough that an Australian university is encouraging people to come forward about their experiences of blackmail). And possibly more distressingly for those who work in a learning management system or who enable students to share contact information in other ways, contract cheating companies, gain access to these systems (eg. to submit an assignment for a client) and then prey on other students in the same class directly. This allows the spread on a campus to be quick and difficult to detect, since messages originate from the accounts of other students.

Creepy, right?

When I first got involved in academic integrity issues, I found it hard to process that this level of nefariousness can exist. But it’s a big business, and it makes big money, and it operates in a pretty grey legal area, all predictable reasons for things to get a bit sketchy.

Helping students to understand the value of securing their data would, I think, offer a measure of protection against these companies. Does everyone understand the seriousness of handing over your SIN, or the responsibility to other people in your classes inherent to keeping your login information secure? If you’re teaching faculty, it’s worth noting that January 28th is Data Privacy Day, a good day to have a conversation with students about what is at stake when they put material online (and TRU folks, we’ll be holding an information event on Student Street that morning, so feel free to send students over for swag, snacks, and useful tips).

And it’s worth talking about how we secure learning materials, as well. Textbook question banks and homework system assignments are incredibly useful, time-saving tools for faculty members. They’re also incredibly insecure. If you use a question bank produced by a textbook manufacturer or other third-party, I encourage you to do an experiment: take a random question from your bank and Google it. If that resource is remotely popular, it’s likely that searching out that one question will bring up the entire question bank. While it’s certainly true that some students will use test banks as study tools, it’s also not a far skip to cheating — and be certain, contract cheating companies already have access to all of that content, too. When a lot of users are drawing on the same resource, it only takes one bad decision by one person to have all that material available on the open web. It’s a good reason to invest in building these tools on-site, particular to each unique context. 


Ok. So. Contract cheating companies exist. We know this. And it’s big business. We know this, too. And it’s predatory. All of this taken together can make it feel impossible to see how we can step in to do anything at all about these issues. 

And yet. I think the conversation where we started this project, around equity and access, tells us a lot about what we can do to reduce the extent to which students are panicked and therefore vulnerable to these companies and their predatory practices. In other words, why are our students so freaked out in the first place?

The barriers we place on learners, intentionally or not, can exacerbate the stakes and promote the fears and feelings that lead students to cheat. Whether it’s a high-cost homework system that leaves a student financially vulnerable, or inaccessible technology that can’t be accessed easily for students without stable internet connections, or a classroom environment that doesn’t allow students to adapt content for their own learning, all of these unnecessary barriers impede the ability of a student to succeed in a course. Each barrier brings additional stress. These barriers can also damage the relationship between faculty and student — and this relationship, too, has an insulating effect on student rates of cheating. When students feel responsible to a class and valued by their instructor, they cheat less.

We know that students are more likely to cheat on high stakes assignments where they have received little guidance. Conveniently, we also know that those same kinds of assignments do little to promote meaningful learning. Research suggests that we can both promote learning and reduce stress and anxiety for students by scaffolding assignments appropriately, checking in at multiple stages, and providing opportunities for questions and feedback. Authentic assessments, too, that students can see reflect clearly the expectations of the world outside the university, have a meaningful impact in terms of lowering rates of academic dishonesty. It’s worth thinking through our means of assessment, then. In truth, the tools we know work for good instruction work to reduce the temptation for engaging a contract cheating company in the first place.

All Is Not Lost

It seems to me that the answer to so many of these issues of predatory practices in educational technologies comes back, time and again, to humanity. Equity needs to be prioritized, data needs to be analyzed, and algorithms need to be critiqued. For example, student data about completion and achievement can only really be ethically handled in the care of thoughtful advisors who see students as more than data. Similarly, if we use tools in the development of our courses, we can choose to do so with care and attention to factors like student stress and desired learning outcomes. In other words, if students are less stressed and better scaffolded, they will learn more. And also! They will likely cheat less.

Often, educational technology, particularly when it is being sold by for-profit interests, is pitched as technology first — look at the shiny thing! — and education second. It seems to me that in every case we’ve talked about so far, whether it is allowing Turnitin to hoard and profit from student data or turning over assignment submission to a homework system, where we go wrong is where we prioritize the technology piece, and all the admittedly exciting things it can do, over the education piece.

And as a result, that’s where we’re heading next week: to flip the script and stop thinking just about all the bad stuff and all the failures of ethics, and start to think instead about how we can equip ourselves critically to make better choices. With that in mind, our next post on Tuesday will be talking about Critical Digital Pedagogy, and offering us all some new questions to ask about the choices we make. I promised you that the goal was empowerment, and that’s what we’re working towards.

In the meantime, here are my prompts for today:

  • Have you had any encounters with contract cheating in your own practice?
  • How can we use technology and all its opportunities mindfully, without losing sight of the human impacts on some of these choices?

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  1. Cheating in terms of accessing HW services like Chegg is rampant at the community college where I teach (speaking in terms of math and science courses here). It’s not unusual for students to have perfect HW scores but to fail utterly on a proctored exam, when they actually have to do the work themselves. Many profs count HW as little or none of the test grade–the intent of the HW is for students to practice solving the kind of problems they will see on the exams–and yet the cheating persists.

    I’m not sure how this would apply to English or comp classes, but one solution in the math/sci world is base the grade on proctored exams.

    I’m a little concerned about placing too much blame on the instructors, as if cheating would stop if we just did our jobs better. That goes double since a lot of instructors are underpaid adjuncts, and many students view their studies as a means to an end.

    1. Hi, Sarah — I really appreciated this comment, thank you. I think you’re right to underscore the precarity of the faculty who are also targeted by these systems. I should be clearer that my critique is of the institutions that push these choices to seem reasonable.

      There is more movement to base grades in the humanities solely or heavily on proctored exams, but I’m not convinced it’s a solution if the goal isn’t just to stop cheating but to maximize learning. There are so many learners not well-served by the exam setting. But it’s hard to find a balance — the fact that it’s so hard, and so cost-ineffective, to find that balance is, I suppose, how we landed here.

  2. Thank you Brenna! This gave me a lot to think about. I had a case of suspected contract cheating in my first year class last semester and this article has made me realize that I need to revamp the assignment to do exactly what you suggest: 1) reduce the stakes by dividing it up into multiple stages (chunks) which will allow me 2) check-in , 3) increase the amount of scaffolding I provide to their learning and 4) give more guidance so that it 4) reduces stress and anxiety, as well as 5) ultimately leads to more meaningful learning. Yes, this will take me more time marking, answering questions and giving feedback, but I would rather spend my time promoting learning and less time chasing plagiarism cases. Chasing plagiarism is SO time consuming and makes me feel like I’m drowning in a giant vat of scholarly “suck”.

    1. Oh, my, yes. So I was a full-time English instructor for nine years before I took this job at TRU, and I really came to resent the amount of time I spent hunting and dealing with plagiarism. It’s how I came to the kind of pedagogical outlook I have now — I realized the time was going to be spent regardless, and I’d much rather plan it around the scaffolding and the feedback than around prosecution.

      If you ever want to grab a coffee and chat about assignment design, and maybe some cool tech tools we can use to enhance that process, let me know!

  3. Sigh, a topic I am unfortunately familiar with.

    I learned a lot of the social media aspect of contract cheating through I presentation I attended by Thomas Lancaster who is credited for coming up with the term “contract cheating”.

    I won’t summarize, but if anyone is interested, here is the presentation:

    I think what was the big take-away for me was the scope of this problem. If one social media account that facilitates this cheating is taken down, like the Hydra monster, 3 heads emerge.
    On somewhat funny note, one contract cheating company even hosts an annual conference with a keynote!

    If I can think of any approach it is a very critical eye when engaging on social media. What I would be interested in hearing from others is strategies or techniques used to assess the legitimacy of any particular social media account.

    1. Matt! Thanks for sharing that presentation. Lancaster’s work is so important.

      I think talking about better critical digital literacy re: social media, etc. is so important. It was one of the things I loved about teaching Academic Writing, because there’s quite a lot of scope to have that conversation when you’re talking about sourcing and verifiability. It seems to me a critical part of setting students up for life, frankly.

  4. One word: grades. And, in the interest of keeping that word on topic: how talk of grades or grade penalties (grade anxieties and humblebrags) spreads on social media creating a chamber of expectations that can be preyed upon by contract-writing companies and that cause students to panic (leading to bad choices). Given that the urge to cheat (or just contract) often comes out of an anxiety situation as you suggest, there’s something to be said about how social media and tech-based sharing amplify the traditional hallway type grade comparisons and hyperbole about what will happen if you fail (or do poorly). Given that students increasingly see education as “transactional”–they pay, we give–there’s a real emphasis on the status of the grade. If contract writing didn’t get high grades, students would not pay for it. One thing I would like to advocate for, along with all the solutions above and in the comments, is taking the pressure off graded results. Emphasizing the value of process and review by grading them as assignments (rather than the “big finish” type grading of a final exam, essay, etc.–a capstone grade). A bunch of process grades instead of one “endgame” grade.

    If we turn out attention to the way tech often exposes processes (ever try a hanging indent in Word(tm)?), I think there’s room for using collaborative tools (shared docs) or markup tools (Hypothesis) or even things such as google docs or git track changes to emphasize process over product. And, we grade the process and the student’s participation in the process rather than on their product. Tech has a role to play in revealing the power of process rather than product and getting us away from results toward tracking evolutions.

    1. I think this is especially valuable as a way of approaching essay writing. Very rarely in working life is the product all that matters, at least not before lengthy, collaborative, iterative processes. In other words, I agree with you, obviously.

      And yes — social media (and all the myriad ways classes are rated and shared) can help students find a good fit, but also amplifies the dread when you end up in the “wrong” section of a mandatory course, for example.

  5. No contract cheating examples that I know of in my courses. There was some old fashion, low tech cheating that was caught. I expect that there was some that I did not catch. But I try to personalize assignments and scaffold assignments so I see the progression of the work. One semester, I had students come up with a topic for a critical review early on. A few weeks later they had to peer share one portion to get feedback. Later, another portion was peer shared for feedback. Finally, they completed the whole assignment and I had already tracked their topics, the feedback and those early drafts. It made it much easier to determine if the thoughts were their own as I talked to them throughout the semester. Granted there were less than 40 students in the class, but I was confident in the belief that most of the students did their own work because of the scaffolding and structure of the class. It was a bit time consuming to set up, but it saved time semester after semester and more importantly, the students learned more in a low states environment.

  6. Hi Brenna and everyone: I wonder if the system of granting degrees after the student has accumulated enough credits in particular categories also encourages cheating.

    I don’t know exactly how it works in Canada, but here in the U.S. students are required to take classes in a variety of subjects that they may not see as relating to their major or primary interest, and there is no final reckoning in the form of a comprehensive exam at the end of their studies.

    In that system, courses outside the major may well be seen as something to be disposed of with as little effort as possible, while retaining as high a GPA as possible. That’s the perfect setup to encourage cheating.

    1. I do think seeing credits as a countdown to the degree is hard. I would hate to lose the breadth of the North American system, though — I really believe electives help us all think differently about our majors, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel that way at the time. But you’re right, it breeds low-commitment relationships to courses and yes, that is when cheating happens. I don’t know what the answer is!

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