How can we encourage students to seek academic assistance ethically?

Following years researching paid academic support methods, Joel Heng Hartse suggests solutions that can help beat “academic help” companies at their own game

Joel Heng Hartse's avatar
28 Mar 2023
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Paying cash for academic help

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While ChatGPT continues to grab headlines and inspire panic in higher education settings around the world, let’s not neglect the old-fashioned way students used to (and still do) try to pass their classes: by getting help from other people.

Of course, we’re far beyond the days of students asking friends if they can copy some maths solutions quickly before class starts. The methods that students use to seek assistance have changed along with technology and society and now represent a kind of spectrum, from innocent study groups to clearly unethical ghostwriting and contract cheating services.

For the past few years, I’ve been leading an SSHRC-funded research project we call the PASS project, with PASS standing for private (or paid) academic support services. This is a phenomenon and area of research that exists at the nexus of academic literacy (students learning how to do things in academia), academic integrity (students pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable for doing “their own” work) and what is known as private supplementary tutoring or “shadow education” (a non-cheating but often ethically dubious practice popular the world over in K-12 education; think Asian cram schools and Kumon learning centres), which is now beginning to emerge in university contexts in Canada and elsewhere. 


What we’re finding is that students – not a majority, but a large plurality – want help with their academic work, and they turn to a variety of sources to get it. Whether that’s a problem, and what should be done about it, depends on your perspective.

In our survey sample of nearly 900 post-secondary students in British Columbia, Canada, we found that almost all reported seeking help from traditional sources such as peers and professor/TA office hours. We also found that about 30 per cent reported paying for various forms of “help” from sources including friends, professional tutors, editors, proofreaders, Chegg or similar websites and software such as Grammarly.

The spectrum of paid services the students turn to varies, and so does the students’ understanding of whether what they’re doing is ethical. Students in our study described paying for help in a variety of ways: as a necessary evil; as an opportunity to learn difficult concepts more easily in their native language; as a way for international students to level the playing field; as a more convenient way to get 24/7 help whenever they needed it; even, as one student put it, as a “dirty” business that is preying on students.

We all know that learning is collaborative and, in the internet age, as education scholar Dave Cormier has argued, it is “difficult not to cheat” because it’s as if everyone has the proverbial “teacher’s copy” – the textbook with all the answers in the back – when it comes to being able to access solutions in their fields of study. Answers to exam or homework questions are often Googleable and, if not, there is likely to be a company ready to take our students’ money in order to “help” them complete their assignments and pass their classes.                                                                

If we don’t want students paying thousands of dollars extra to get help with material we are already teaching, we would do well to consider some of the following solutions that can help beat “academic help” companies at their own game:

− Engage more with teaching and tutoring in languages other than English. This does bring up equity concerns (one student in our study who said he spoke a common international language in British Columbia expressed this, saying he had options for tutoring that other international students did not), but the fact is that a large number of students in our context seem to be seeking out paid services in their first language. If universities want to undermine the business model of these institutions, they could implement their own multilingual tutoring programmes or support student-led initiatives to run multilingual peer tutoring that won’t cost their classmates thousands of dollars.

− As the University of Calgary’s Sarah Elaine Eaton has argued, universities could support the development of free, open-source and ethical document-sharing platforms. Students could exchange notes, ideas and more, and there could be clear rules about not uploading professors’ intellectual property – indeed, professors could perhaps opt in to have their course materials shared internally.

− Continue to offer more innovative, non-traditional and after-hours tutoring and studying support. Events such as the Long Night Against Procrastination hosted by libraries and writing centres around the world seem to build community around studying and writing in a fun and ethical way. And if universities were able to support peer-led 24/7 tutoring services (with tutors trained in academic integrity practices) this could be a welcome alternative.

− Finally, the burn-it-all down solution: abolish grading and GPAs in favour of alternative assessment and evaluation methods. Since a large number of students in our study reported seeking paid help for GPA-related reasons, we could just get rid of the whole thing. Some disciplines might be more at home with subjective or narrative evaluations, or with moving toward describing students’ competencies, as British Columbia’s own new K-12 curriculum has done. Other programmes could rely on professional standards rather than letter grades. What if everything was just pass/fail? Unmotivated students would still flunk or drop out, while others might feel less pressure to seek unethical “help”. The sky’s the limit here.

Our students will always want to seek help with academic work; it’s part of the nature of learning. Whether or not they are driven into the arms of profit-seeking companies whose ethical standards are dubious is, in part at least, up to us.

Joel Heng Hartse is a senior lecturer in the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University, Canada.

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