Essay mills ‘targeting students’ as pandemic crisis shifts HE online

New guidance from UK’s QAA says shift to online learning has left students vulnerable to contract cheating services

June 18, 2020
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Universities need to increase their student support following the moves to distance learning and digital assessment, as essay mills have sought to capitalise on the anxiety faced by students because of the pandemic, according to new UK guidance.

The Quality Assurance Agency has produced updated guidance on “how to address essay mills and contract cheating” in higher education. The document reports that the pandemic has “demonstrated how innovative and adaptable essay mills marketing could be” by advertising discounts and “suggesting they could fill a gap resulting from a lack of supervision, or even offering essay writing to help students stay safe”.

According to the QAA, universities must make sure they provide effective student support for their students, as students physically distanced from their academic community may be more vulnerable to essay mill marketing.

Personal tutoring and academic mentoring “centred on academic performance and its enhancement is critical to the development of students as confident independent learners”, making them less likely to fall prey to essay mills, according to the QAA.

The guidance also says universities must consider the support given to students from diverse cultural backgrounds, in terms of their study and language skills, and how that can contribute to academic integrity.

The QAA said the pandemic will have permanently changed how universities provide learning and assessment – with most providers planning to adopt a blended approach of in-person teaching supported by plenty of virtual provision – and therefore universities must look at how to prevent or catch cheating in physically distanced assessment.

Michael Draper, professor of legal studies at Swansea University and a member of the QAA’s academic integrity advisory group, said “there is an acceptance that remote examinations will stay in some form along with others, therefore you need to think about the structure of that assessment and the means to detect cheating in those assessments”.

“The big concern is collusion through ‘online tutoring’ sites that will answer questions in real time,” he added. “There are companies that provide proctoring services that act like remote invigilation, which use software to check for key strokes, cameras check for eye movement, to check there is no-one else in the room and what you are looking at on your computer – but of course they come with additional costs.”

It is also important students develop the confidence in their own abilities to prevent them turning to cheating sites, he said. “The personal tutor/academic mentor and student relationship is going to be increasingly key, because certainly for the next academic year we won’t be back to full service on the physical campus, therefore that one-to-one relationship will be key to ensuring students feel they can succeed,” Professor Draper said.

The updated guidance also reflected an acknowledgement that the use of essay mills was widespread and that some students would always find a way to cheat, therefore detection should be a priority.  

The QAA said that each institution must formally resource staff to detect academic misconduct. “This will help ensure institutional consistency and makes it clear that addressing contract cheating is a priority,” according to the guidance.

“These misconduct cases take an enormous amount of time, in relation to interviewing students, getting evidence and managing that through to an academic misconduct panel,” added Professor Draper. “If that’s not built into staff workload through a formal model then there is a disincentive for staff to engage with that process; it’s not that they don’t want to but there are only so many hours in a day and they have so many important competing priorities.”

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