Chegg: a $12 billion headache for academic integrity?

Students’ use of the website to cheat has exploded during the pandemic, according to researchers, but its legitimate uses put universities in a difficult position

March 23, 2021
silhouette of anonymous student sitting at laptop
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The switch to online learning is thought to have led to a dramatic spike in cases of students cheating, but Chegg, a “help with homework” website, is causing a particular headache for universities.

Students can post questions to the site and get answers from its “online experts” at any time of the day. The US-based company says it will do its best to get a response within two hours, but they often come within 15 minutes.

Academics from around the world say students have been repeatedly using the service to cheat during online exams since the start of the pandemic.

One study, by researchers at Imperial College London, found that requests for help with exam-style questions on Chegg increased by 196 per cent comparing April to August 2020 with the same period in 2019.

At the same time, the company, which was initially set up as a textbook rental service, has seen great financial success. Its shares are up by 345 per cent since the US first went into lockdown, and the company is now valued at more than $12 billion (£8.6 billion), according to Forbes.

The problem in tackling Chegg’s use for cheating is that it has many different – and often legitimate – uses for students, such as textbook rental and video tutorials.

Its use is even validated by universities; in the US, low-income students on certain grants are given a limited free subscription to Chegg (worth $15 a month), while Arizona State University recently partnered with the company to offer educational courses for non-degree-seeking students.

In the UK, it was revealed in 2020 that the University of Edinburgh had invested about £865,000 in the company.

“If a university is investing in a service in the educational space, then it looks like an endorsement,” said Thomas Lancaster, a senior teaching fellow at Imperial and one of the authors of the Chegg study. “There are plenty of different reasons behind an investment…and there are good reasons to use Chegg, like the textbook-hire scheme.

“It’s very appealing, for example, if you want an answer late at night, when a professor isn’t around to respond to you. Chegg has marketed itself very well. But Chegg can and is being used for contract cheating…It’s not something that we can ignore.”

Cath Ellis, associate dean (education) in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UNSW Sydney, agreed. While the site was not a typical essay mill – where students pay for someone else to write an essay for them – it “falls squarely into what we have referred to in our research as a ‘place where students outsource their learning’”.

The bump in Chegg’s value when the pandemic hit said a lot about how students were using it, Dr Ellis argued. But she added: “Concomitantly, this has provided institutions with new ways to detect this kind of cheating behaviour.”

This is because Chegg cooperates with academic integrity investigations if the request is submitted by a dean or academic integrity officer, taking down the question and answers, and providing information about who posted and viewed them.

Kelly Ahuna, director of the Office of Academic Integrity at the University at Buffalo, said that before March 2020 she had only made 10 to 15 requests, but has made about 100 since.

But many students use bogus email addresses, making it harder to identify who posted. If Chegg required a university email to submit a question, this would help identify who used it this way and likely deter them from doing so, she said.

In response, Chegg has introduced Honor Shield, which allows teachers to pre-submit exam questions, preventing them from being answered on the platform for a specified time period. It is currently only available in the US but will soon be rolled out worldwide. However, Dr Ahuna said that most academics were strongly against submitting their intellectual property to a commercial company.

A Chegg spokesman said that the company took any attempts to cheat using its site “extremely seriously” and that it invested “huge time, effort and resources to prevent misuse of our learning platform”, increasing this in the past 18 months.

“Students need help and the overwhelming majority of Chegg users are hard-working and honest, and they use our platform to supplement their learning,” the spokesman said.  

“We are committed to working with faculty on this important topic, including how assessments can be improved to support remote learning, address the enormous stress students face, as well as ensure that efforts are preventative and not punitive.”

Dr Lancaster and Dr Ellis agreed that universities should also look at the way they assess students, as well as raising awareness about what constitutes cheating, to prevent students misusing Chegg. “Talk to your students…help them focus on your need to see them demonstrating their learning and why that matters: to them, to their future learning, [and] their future employers,” Dr Ellis said.

“This generation have grown up with access to information at their fingertips and may not as readily recognise that what they are doing is a violation of academic integrity,” Dr Ahuna added. “And Chegg is more confusing than the typical site to go to for cheating because there are legitimate or seemingly legitimate ways to use it.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: What does Chegg mean for integrity?

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