A university has developed a bot that poses as an essay mill to catch students in the act, raising new ethical questions about how to tackle contract cheating.
The artificial intelligence tool – named Jack Watson – monitors the internet, identifies students from a particular university looking to contract cheat and provides them with a “watermarked” assignment that will reveal itself on submission.
The development of the tool at Georgia Institute of Technology reflects growing concern among academics about the influence of contract cheating in higher education. One study published last year suggested that as many as one in seven recent graduates may have recruited someone else to undertake an assignment for them.
But one expert questioned whether the new approach went too far, likening it to entrapment. In response, one of the developers of the technology said that students who sought to use essay mills had “already crossed an ethical line”.
So far, Jack Watson has been used on auction sites where buyers post information about assignments they want completing and writers bid for the project.
Teaching staff at Georgia Tech provide the tool with keywords so that particular assignments can be monitored, allowing it to flag suspected attempts at contract cheating that are confirmed through human review.
Jack Watson then chats with the students to confirm whether the assignment in question is the one a teacher is monitoring and, if so, will try to secure the contract.
Teaching staff provide a “solution” to the assignment, watermarking it so it is identifiable upon submission (but “without raising suspicion of the student”) – a step that is necessary because the internet interactions are usually anonymous.
Any student who submits a watermarked assignment is then referred for investigation.
Rocko Graziano, one of the developers of Jack Watson at Georgia Tech, said that the tool had already successfully identified nine cases of contract cheating. There was also evidence that it was serving as a deterrent to other students, he said.
Georgia Tech plans to continue to develop Jack Watson, in the hope that it can eventually be made available to other universities.
Thomas Lancaster, a senior teaching fellow at Imperial College London and an expert in contract cheating, said that the “level of deception involved” raised “the question about what is fair and ethical when trying to preserve academic integrity”.
“Yes, students are trying to cheat and that can’t be condoned. But does that afford academics and researchers the right to themselves supply work to students to catch them contract cheating?” Dr Lancaster asked. “How does that compare to a law enforcer supplying someone with drugs in order to convict them? Personally, I feel these approaches are taking things a step too far.”
However Mr Graziano said the Georgia Tech team was “comfortable with the ethical questions it raises” as the “students we are engaging with are paying somebody to do their work for them. So they have already crossed an ethical line, they are violating Georgia Tech’s academic code and are violating the codes of conduct in the classroom.”
Mr Graziano said that students caught by the tool would be offered their money back. He likened the tool to the embedding of a police officer in a crime ring, rather than entrapment.
“They are actively engaging in unethical issues and we’re catching them,” he said.
Print headline: Gotcha! AI bot ‘entraps’ student contract cheaters
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