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Chegg, Cheating and Australian Universities

The note on Radio National’s Background Briefing on the morning of July 31 was sombre. A student, who did not divulge his real name (he is professionally pseudonymised as Ramesh), talks about services that aid him in his study. Aid is less accurate than do – given that he is working gruelling night shifts in the fast-food industry, he is incapable of making morning classes at the said unnamed university. Flipping burgers in greasy splendour takes precedent.

The student, along with others featured in the programme, talk about accessing a multitude of websites that provide “support services” that aid the cheating industrial complex. As to whether he is worried about being caught out, he likens it to the consequences of speeding: it’s all fine if you don’t get caught.

The pressures are enormous, notably for international students or those on scholarships who must achieve certain grades to retain their place or stipend. The stresses of the pandemic on learning has also pushed students to search for other aides in facilitating study to maintain their grades.

Just as the global COVID-19 pandemic forced students from physical classes to their homes and bedrooms, online platforms – in this case, sites such as the Santa Clara-based Chegg – were there to capitalise. According to its website, course help is promised around the clock – 24/7 no less. “From the first day to finals, get homework help, exam prep & writing support – tailored to your courses.” A number of subfields mentioned by the company try to avoid the notion that plagiarism or cheating takes place. Indeed, there is a section dedicated to “writing and citations,” which promises to improve “your writing with plagiarism checks, expert proofreading & instant citations.”

This very fact suggests that the company is less interested in broader principles of plagiarism vis-à-vis the student, but to enable the student in question to write a paper that will bypass the plagiarist watchdogs. This is a far cry from the company that began in 2000 offering a search facility for scholarships, a search function for matching internships and general advice on how to get into college. The money started rolling in for the company when it started to rent out textbooks.

Then came COVID-19 and the advent of the global virtual classroom. Subscriptions to Chegg ballooned. In the third quarter of 2020, they grew to 3.7 million or 69% from 2019 figures. In 2021, its total net revenues came in at US$776.3 million, drawn from a subscriber base of 4.6 million. The company is now roughly estimated to be worth US$12 billion.

Explanations about whether using Chegg’s services constitutes cheating rage across the internet. An article from the College Guide Post is fairly unequivocal: “Chegg is cheating if you use Chegg Study in college to complete homework, answer quiz questions, or answer exam questions.” (Is it really useful for anything else?)

In Australia, legislation was passed in August 2020 making it an offence for any person to provide or advertise academic cheating services relating to the delivery of higher education in Australia, irrespective of whether that person is in Australia or elsewhere. The offence is serious enough to warrant an imprisonment for up to two years. A distinction is also drawn from the perspective of payment: cheating services provided gratis are treated differently from services provided for profit.

Australia’s university regulator, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) has gone as far as blocking 40 websites receiving 450,000 monthly visits. In a statement from Education Minister Jason Clare, “Illegal cheating services threaten academic integrity and expose students to criminals who often attempt to blackmail students into paying large sums of money.” This grand gesture is bound to be more symbolic than effective, given that such sites are accessible via other means.

The slant taken by Chegg CEO Dan Rosensweig is to shift the focus back on who he sees as the main culprit: the university itself. Traditional tertiary institutions, he stated in 2019, had to adjust to the on-demand economy and accept the binge-worthy nature of modern education. To that end, his company offers a service akin to Uber, which went out of its way to disrupt the norms of the transport industry.

He also denies that his company facilitates cheating, as such. Chegg’s honour code remarks that “academic integrity is a fundamental part of the learning process and we work to preserve it.” Its services are intended “to support learning, not replace it.” To cover its tracks, the organisation warns of “serious consequences” that can arise from misusing its services “including without limitation being banned from our platforms or having an investigation opened by your institution”.

That all sounds splendid, but policing such boundaries is nigh impossible. Detection has become a difficult affair, given the exploitative grading scheme being used by universities. Australia’s disproportionately casualised academic workforce leaves little room, or incentive, to spend time on identifying such work. The average time spent on student assessments is one hour, and some Australian universities have been caught up for giving their tutors even less time to grade work.

In August 2020, the ABC reported that tutors at ten Australian tertiary institutions were effectively being encouraged to “skim read” assessments. RMIT University was taken to the Fair Work Commission by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) for its particularly abysmal rates that limited the amount of time grading an essay and returning comments to students to a miserable 10 minutes per paper. In such rich soils of exploitation, chegging is bound to thrive.

Universities, in response, can do a number of things in an academic arms race they are otherwise bound to lose. They can reconsider assessment strategies. They can improve the conditions of tutors and staff responsible for grading. They can ease the absurd burdens placed on international students whose treatment during pandemic times, and prior, was abominable.

Where there is hunger and desire, there will be a market. Universities have always faced the problem of cheating. But the market of mass, corporatized education has also produced the means of its own subversion. Students lacking financial support and facing ever exploiting programs that disadvantage them will always find a way. Integrity is meaningless in such a case, much like ethics would be to a starving creature. The problem will not be resolved by simply targeting the likes of Chegg. A broader institutional approach is required, and Australian universities have repeatedly shown they are not up to such challenges.

 

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11 comments

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  1. Andrew Smith

    Academic integrity…. blame academic management for failing to implement hurdles early on and/or deferring to sales/admissions by averting their gaze from not so much copying, but ‘ghost writing’.

    The solutions or hurdles are simple, but require resourcing e.g. short entry level testing on English language ability (even if they have an IELTS), with a face to face interview, an in class piece of written work in first week (to be presented) and a mid session exam (not at end); potentially weak students can be easily identified. The latter are then required to follow process i.e. submit a draft for each assessment showing evidence of using (prescribed) sources and outlining their argument/position, and verbally too.

    Further, sessional and other lecturer/tutors need paid training or workshops in how to identify symptoms of ghost written work e.g. does not match students’ previous written work, ‘flowery language’, archaic expressions, not addressing the topic, old sources (not following ‘CRAAP’ test), not using specific referencing e.g. institution’s custom version of e.g. Harvard referencing (not generic).

    Comes to down to resources, competence, personal and organisational ethics versus turnover, cost margins and profits.

  2. Kerri

    This is what happens when you commercialise education.
    Our pre-school, primary and secondary sectors are severely compromised but our tertiary sector requires a complete reset.
    When I was a teacher I did some tutoring (there’s another education issue! Teacher’s wages) and realised it would be a very easy area to basically do some of the work for the kids. This was back when Geography, my subject, was 50% exam, 50% classwork including independent work done outside of the classroom.
    I was also exposed to exam marking and found the hours and payment to be absurd, even back then.
    The corruption of education is milking international students (and parents), encouraging cheating and robbing the country of much needed professionals.
    I have no issue with properly trained professionals coming to Australia but I do believe we owe it to our children to consider them first. A bit like gas.
    Will there be a future influx of migrant professionals whose qualifications will be accepted having been acquired through the Australian education system and who then distinguish themselves as poor practitioners in their chosen area?
    Doctors come to mind?

  3. wam

    Todays universities operate like the lnp. They both vehemently deny the haves are supported by the have nots.
    Cheating is inversely proportional to entry standards.

  4. RomeoCharlie29

    Universities appear to have absorbed the worst aspects of the ethics of our business community, greed over their ethical service responsibilities and exploitation of their workforces. Sad but not surprising given the ten dismal, depressing years of example set by the Abbott/Turnbull/Morriscum governments. The Augean stables need a clean-out.

  5. Michael Taylor

    One of my uni lecturers told me that she gave “STUDENT R” a fail for an assignment… a score of 20% by memory.

    STUDENT R belonged to a minority group.

    The lecturer was hauled to the dean’s office and was told that under no circumstances is she allowed to fail a student from STUDENT R’s minority group.

    Reluctantly, she upgraded his assignment.

  6. Alasdair

    I’m a senior staff member at a university, and the problem of academic integrity (and assessment) has been part of my life for years. There are huge problems. TEQSA, which regulates universities, has the power to shut down websites or to forbid them operating in Australia. (Which simply means students can use a VPN to pretend they’re logging in from a different country). As well, government funding is abysmal, staffing is becoming more casualized (in spite of some very strong pushing from NTEU to convert casual staff to ongoing), and managers are becoming more corporate. The tertiary sector was hard hit during the pandemic; and tertiary staff were not eligible for jobkeeper. At my own university, morale is low, overwork is rife, funding is almost non-existent: we can’t even afford to hire the staff we need, let alone the staff we want. We’ve spent years playing around with all sorts of changes to teaching and learning – including assessment – but we are also of course in thrall to our professional accrediting bodies, who often stipulate the sorts of assessments they would like to see in our courses. (This annoys the pants off me, but there we are.)

    I am currently investigating an issue of academic integrity. And it takes a huge amount of time. Collecting evidence, interviewing students, writing reports, applying sanctions, dealing with the fall-out … it’s lucky that right now I do have that time, but most of my colleagues do not. The time it takes to investigate an integrity issue versus the likely outcome (generally mild) means that most staff simply decide not to bother. (I know somebody who is currently undertaking a PhD on the issues of staff decision making in academic integrity investigations.) What is really needed is an army of integrity experts to help staff, but who can afford that? We have two such people in my institution, and they are hideously overworked as it is. A standard response to a question is “check the policy”. (I don’t blame them.)

    Academic integrity and cheating has always been an arms race, with the students several moves ahead of staff. A year ago I was teaching a subject for the first time; a quick google search on the subject name and code revealed a number of sites (with helpful names like myassignmenthelp.com) which contained answers to all questions, both from the labs, tests, and exams. (Other staff to whom I showed this were amazed and horrified.) I spent an exhausting time rewriting every single item of assessment and creating new question banks. Most people don’t have the time and energy for this. But in fact rewriting assessment tasks every time a subject runs is a standard approach to mitigating cheating, but even this is hard if the accrediting body stipulates “authentic assessment”, or assessment of a specific type.

    It’s also worth knowing that several decades of research into integrity has revealed that it’s impossible to design “cheat-proof” assessment. In the end it’s down to individual staff who, as I say, are overworked, underpaid, harassed, and exhausted.

    Anyway, I wouldn’t be so quick to blame “the universities”. All staff I know work ridiculously hard to support their students (I’ve had many an email discussion at times like 11pm; or formal meetings late at night, because there are no other times), in almost impossible circumstances. Blame successive governments for reducing funding, for creating an over-reliance on international revenue, for increasing corporatization of universities, and pretty much creating a perfect storm of cheating.

    It’s no wonder people are leaving.

  7. Michael Taylor

    All staff I know work ridiculously hard to support their students…

    Alasdair, that certainly was the case where I went to uni (UniSA). You’d never find a better mob.

  8. New England Cocky

    @ Michael Taylor: When last adding to my collection of academic paper during the noughties, I was advised by the Faculty Dean that it was OK for a student colleague to pay for a highly qualified English teacher to have their thesis edited, rather re-written in concise academic legal English. Funny it seems that the task of the supervisor had changed since my early works so that the capacity to pay could replace academic ability merit.

  9. margcal

    Probably the major problem with universities is the downward spiral of government funding and the unis becoming just like businesses in their now almost rapacious generation of funds by various methods.

    One method is the wholesale importation of international students. This needs to stop. …. Admittedly covid has done its bit here, and the degrees offered are becoming more undesirable as courses are hollowed out or cut completely. Overseas numbers might never recover. But I suggest as our degrees become less valuable, so will the calibre of students be.

    I used to occasionally watch that show about people arriving by plane and some of them being pulled aside for immigration checks. There was a significant number on student visas who could barely understand English and needed an interpreter. Why would they be admitted to a university except to take fees from them? They couldn’t benefit from even the poorest quality offerings.

    Then who, pre-covid, hasn’t read newspaper articles or seen Current Affair type exposes where overseas students lived in severely cramped quarters, taking turns at sleeping in the beds crammed into every available space?

    As well as paying fees, overseas students should not be admitted to study if they have an insufficient grasp of the language and they must have sufficient funding so they can live decently without having to work such long hours that there is no time left to attend lectures and study …. or to socialise, which is an important part of the university experience.

  10. Andrew Smith

    Re-reading comments, why only Australia? Something one could not deal in higher ed was the Oz education ‘quality’ culture which seems more about PR and compromised by unqualified instructional designers (especially but not limited to online). The latter involves leaving ‘doors open’ on assessment integrity issues, e.g. timing of assessments, pitched at wrong level (too difficult or easy), discovering at end of a session exam that a student had been using ghost writers throughout….but not identified.

    Related, is when experienced industry types (great) lecture/tutor, but are expected to design a course or program without teaching, learning & assessment qualifications, expertise and resources (ditto for many faculty). End up with a series of anodyne PowerPoint presentations based on regurgitating the course book (or using slides provided) & embedded assessments throughout (and findable online), then an exam to bookend the session……

    Further, the timing of the Student Experience of Learning & Teaching (SELT) evaluations in higher ed completed by students, are useless for sessional lecturers and academic management, why? Turnover of sessionals and ever changing variables out of their control e.g. overpopulated classes and completing in the final week is a waste of time for lecturer development and troubleshooting quality issues, because the session is over, hence, it’s simply marketing of quality or a ‘box tick’…… it must be earlier (weeks 3-4), acted upon and communicated back.

    Finally, higher ed has adopted some of its own management content aka Taylor’s Scientific Management (popularised by Ford) for application to sessional personnel i.e. lack of support, no communication, no professional development nor workshops and no opportunity for feedback on potential improvements; the latter suggests amongst senior management insecurity or worse, they don;t care and expect personnel to be speak when being spoken to or ‘follow orders’.

  11. Alasdair

    Margcal: “Probably the major problem with universities is the downward spiral of government funding and the unis becoming just like businesses in their now almost rapacious generation of funds by various methods.”

    Absolutely! This is the nub of it. And universities are in general run by academics, who (is anybody surprised?) are mostly shit at business.

    On the subject of international students with poor language skills, you will all recall the case at Murdoch Uni a few years ago where a staff whistleblower took to the media to point out that the University was accepting students who in fact didn’t meet the University’s own entrance requirements. And there’s a thriving trade in some parts of the world of impostors who will sit your IELTS exam for you.

    The whole business of international students, remote teaching and learning, academic integrity, endemic staff shortages and poor funding, is an utter nightmare. I’m just thankful I’m not a young eager post-PhD scholar ready to start on an academic career. What a profound and colossal disappointment for them. (I’m an older curmudgeon with a highly developed sense of cynicism.)

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