It may surprise you to learn that academic cheating — the business of gaining unfair or unauthorized advantage during a test or on a course assignment — is actually a business.
Around the world, companies are making billions of dollars selling test answers, trading tests, hawking pre-written essays or writing entirely new work for students. There are even people who can, for a fee, take entire classes or take a student’s tests.
When students pay their way to test scores and course grades and degrees and credentials, three things happen. One, the value of that degree — what it means to have it — goes down. When cheating happens, a degree no longer represents learning. The second thing is that people enter the workforce unprepared. Even though they finished school or have a credential, nurses don’t actually know nursing, engineers don’t really know engineering and teachers don’t know how to teach. Third and most disturbing to me is the inequity gap that grows between those who can afford to pay to cheat and those who cannot.
Those realities make it very troubling that, 24 hours a day, any student can buy an answer to a homework question in minutes. During a test, students can text any problem and get the answer before their test ends. Easier yet, they can snap a photo of the exam and get all the answers.
There are companies that encourage students to upload their tests and answers to massive document banks. Those companies then sell those tests and assignments back to other students. For a profit, of course.
And then there are the essay mills. You can get a custom essay on any topic you’d like — in a day. There’s even a rush service. It’s simple. And scary.
Some cheating companies have millions of subscribers. Some of them are publicly traded entities posing as student support services. They spend millions on ads and on social media, messaging students directly saying “you deserve to have fun” or “being a student is so stressful” or “your teacher is terrible.” All this is to make cheating logical, normal and easy. Oh, and to make money.
All that money means that teachers and schools are outmatched in their efforts to educate students not to cheat. It would be like one person trying to take down Amazon. It’s little wonder that cheating is increasing.
I watch this closely because the company I work with helps schools prevent cheating. We monitor online tests and not only stop cheating before it happens, we’ve also broken up professional testing rings. One professional cheater we caught had more than 100 clients who were paying him to take their classes — simply swiping their credit cards for college credit — not even bothering to show up.
Many institutions valiantly work to deter academic misconduct, running education campaigns and changing courses and assessments. Most schools use some form of anti-cheating technology. Nonetheless, we are in a vicious cycle where the cheating sellers will always be better motivated and better funded than academic institutions. And trying just to match them costs money — money that could be spent on teaching or scholarships or a thousand other things. It’s just one more way that cheating hurts us all.
But what can we do about it? One thing we can do is be open about it — acknowledge that cheating exists, that it’s on the rise and share what we know.
Having good benchmarks, measures of how much cheating is happening, and where and how it’s growing can support collective action. In the last year, several universities and colleges started reporting on cheating. That’s a good thing. They all should. And soon, our company will release our numbers, what we’ve seen from more than 4 million exams from last year. We encourage others with similar data to share it.
It would also help if we made it more difficult for cheating providers to promote their illicit wares. The United Kingdom and Ireland are leaders in this regard. Ireland got Facebook to take down ads for contract cheating. Australia has formally asked social media companies to delete and ban advertisements for cheating and made selling cheating illegal. As a result, Australia recently announced that searches for cheating services dropped 23 percent last year.
These are small steps but combined they limit the mobility and audacity of cheating companies to lure students into misconduct. If we can do those things, we can create the space for education efforts that instill a culture of academic integrity to take hold.