May 2019

I’m starting to get worried. While we wait for educational and governmental leaders to do something about contract cheating, the industry is expanding and the providers are becoming less ashamed and more brazen. Our silence is equaling permission and the contract cheating providers are seizing the opportunity to become legitimate.

To be sure, some educational and governmental leaders are doing something about contract cheating. In the UK, the Education Secretary asked PayPal and Google to refuse to service contract cheating providers, the Westminster Forum just recently held an event focused on contract cheating, and the Quality Assurance Agency has been busy working on the problem as well. In Australia, the government is passing legislation to make contract cheating services illegal, and the universities have really stepped it up with their efforts to prevent and respond to contract cheating in direct and pointed ways.

At the same time, the Canadian Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities is refusing to step in saying that contract cheating is merely an issue to be addressed by individual institutions and students. And, of course, there seems to be no political or educational leadership on this issue in the United States.

And we’re seeing the impact of our collective silence.

When Dave Tomar first talked about his contract cheating provider days back in 2010, he hid his identity as the “shadow scholar” because he knew his actions were immoral - there was shame. Now, contract cheating providers are making their identities known - even when they are a graduate student themselves.

When the industry was getting started, the websites used to hide what they were doing. They would claim that they were only providing students with sample paper. Now, they are much more brazen. They admit that they are doing work for the students to submit and they are using seduction methods to lure students into using their services.

And students are beginning to believe that contract cheating is commonplace and once there is a critical mass that shares the belief, it might as well be true.

The industry is growing as a result. And the impact of our silence is that contract cheating will become a normal and accepted way to receive a university degree.

I urge all universities and colleges to join us in the fight against contract cheating by doing one simple thing - participating in the 4th International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating (IDoA). It will be happening on October 16th, 2019. Start planning now by seeing what has been done in the past and rallying the troops on your campus to help you with your day of action plans.

And stay tuned on more information about the 2019 IDoA - advice and instructions are coming soon. On just this one day, let us speak with such a loud and unified voice that the silence is broken. Perhaps then our educational and political leaders will hear us and feel compelled to join us in the fight.

At the March 2019 ICAI Conference, the sessions were amazing. An important theme addressed in several sessions was the challenge in faculty consistently reporting academic authenticity violations.

What can be done to obtain faculty buy-in to follow campus policies?

While this theme of inconsistent faculty reporting is a concern in many institutions, Western Governors University (WGU) has effectively removed this barrier with a disaggregated faculty model. As part of the standard process, all student submissions at WGU go through a comprehensive originality review. The teaching faculty member does not evaluate any student work; instead, there is a separate team of faculty whose sole focus is rigorous, objective evaluation. WGU’s disaggregated model supports consistent, fair, and accurate reporting of academic authenticity violations.

From a student perspective, they may work with a teaching faculty member if help is needed. Then the student submits a paper or other assessment activity that is delivered to the evaluation faculty member to evaluate. Every submission is run through a rigorous academic authenticity review. Below is an illustration of the process.

The assessments are created by the program development faculty, a group that does not include teaching faculty members. The teaching and evaluating of performance assessments are separated and work independently of one another but are aligned and calibrated. Within the disaggregated assessment faculty model, Course Instructors and Program Mentors are the only faculty members directly engaging with students as they master required competencies, while unbiased evaluators focus solely on reviewing assessments.

Beyond the disaggregated model, WGU’s Learning Management System minimizes bias by masking students’ names from the view of evaluators. That’s reinforced through policy in the student handbook, recommending that students should not put their names on any submission. Additionally, the students and faculty rely on rubrics for every performance assessment that create a consistent evaluation model. All the evaluators in the department participate in calibration activities to ensure consistent, fair, accurate, and quick evaluations for students.

WGU adheres to a competency-based education (CBE) model with a focus on developing knowledge and continual learning. The idea of submitting an assessment is not necessarily a one-and-done event. Rather, the student is allowed multiple submissions to demonstrate competency. There is customized feedback from the evaluator and, upon request, from a teaching course faculty member. Even the proctored objective assessments allow students more than one attempt, providing students who were unsuccessful in their first attempt with a study plan noting the competencies and objectives that need additional review.

At WGU, the faculty and staff members are committed to a proactive approach in enforcing and supporting the academic authenticity policy. We are teachers at heart and adhering to the policy supports student learning and development. We are partnering with students on a path to learning at WGU and beyond. Because our model is a different approach to resolving the problem of inconsistent reporting of integrity violations, I welcome your questions or comments.

As I set about to write this blog post, it occurred to me that we haven't yet had any "news posts". The "news posts" are intended to highlight a news item (or multiple connected news items) that may have an impact on education and/or integrity but perhaps did not receive the attention and discussion it should have. So, I thought this week, it was time for a "news post".

In particular, I have four news pieces in mind that I think deserve our attention. I've resisted talking about these pieces because I didn't want to give the featured practices and companies any free advertising or airtime. However, I've come to realize that when those of us in the field of integrity/ethics are silent in response to these news pieces, we are contributing to the ethical fading that makes it difficult for society and education professionals to determine what is and isn't legitimate in higher education. And when ethical fading reaches its peak, we all become bystanders and we risk the decline of the institutional integrity of our colleges and universities, not to mention the educational sector itself.

So, here are are four things that were in the news that you might have missed and may want to know about.

Chegg, a company that promises to be a "smarter way to student", has partnered with the Owl at Purdue (a well respected online writing center for university students), "to improve the writing skills of millions of students". In the news piece, Purdue professors challenge the legitimacy of this partnership and wondered why Owl "would partner with a company that has a reputation for helping students to cheat on their homework" and, the professors say, a company that facilitates the violation of copyright laws.

To be sure, Chegg has an honor code and if a professor discovers answers to homework assignments posted on Chegg, they will remove those posts and conduct an investigation to determine who posted the question. However, most often the posters have created an account that allows them to be anonymous so their identity cannot be determined. And in that case, Chegg's honor code cannot be fully executed.

The Owl partnership isn't the first for Chegg. You may have also missed that in 2017, Chegg and Kaplan Test Prep companies partnered to offer "high quality test prep services" through Chegg. Since, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the test prep companies have long-ago gained legitimacy in the education sector, this partnership, along with the one with Purdue, affords legitimacy to Chegg. Perhaps the legitimacy is warranted, but perhaps it isn't. At this point, we do not know because we have no quality assurance process to evaluate and accredit such companies or partnerships.

In other news, CourseHero, a company that promises to help students succeed and "learn deeply", has partnered with the Woodrow Wilson Foundation to "support rising stars in the academy who love teaching and demonstrate excellence as educators." According to an Inside Higher Education piece in May of 2018, educators are also questioning whether sites like CourseHero and Quizlet are "learning tools or cheating aids." So, it seems reasonable to suggest that a quality assurance process may help foundations like Woodrow Wilson pick and choose appropriate partnerships that advance, rather than undermine, their mission and reputation.

To be sure, news items like this tend to fly under the radar. There is so much going on in higher education and other stories (like Operation Varsity Blues, growing anxiety among college students, and the growing hunger problem of college students) seem to grab more attention. It's not that one story or issue is more important than the next (although I've previously posted on how issues that impact the foundation of Maslow's hierarchy of needs always receive more attention). Rather, we must have the bandwidth necessary to tackle all issues that undermine the integrity of our educational institutions. At the very least, these news stories emphasize my earlier point that it may be far past time to develop quality assurance and accreditation channels for the "side-hustle" companies that operate on the outskirts of the educational sector yet have a tremendous influence on our operations.

Recently, an instructor was anonymously sent screenshots of a GroupMe chat for the course. The GroupMe for the class was initially created by the students to help share ideas and work together to understand the course content. Students are encouraged to study together to help them understand material and prepare for graded assignments but were specifically told to complete assignments individually. During an online quiz, some students corrupted the group by photographing their online quizzes and requesting assistance from their peers. Out of the large number of students enrolled in the course, the instructor could only report eight identifiable students. She could also only report the students shown on the screenshots that were shared from the anonymous student because she did not have access to the GroupMe.


In our office, students must meet with faculty members that accuse them of violating the Academic Honesty Policy in the presence of a trained facilitator. Meetings can last 15 minutes or over an hour, but over 95% of our caseload is resolved within the meetings.


During the meeting, the instructor was very upset. She pointed out that she already allows the class to use their book on the quiz, and she showed the students where they had acknowledged that they were completing the test on their own. Why, then, were students engaging in cheating behavior?


Different students provided different answers. Several students pointed to external factors, such as stress and a lack of preparation. Others said that because someone else in the GroupMe had done it, they thought it was allowed. While some students admitted to violating the honor code right away, others tried to obfuscate the issue by drawing attention to unrelated documentation.


One student, however, provided a unique response. “It didn’t seem real.” The online quiz, to this student, did not seem like a real assignment. In the student’s mind, the assignment did not count as academic credit, so why not ask peers for help? Because this quiz was online, the student felt it was acceptable to request answers without doing the work.


This student’s thought process reinforces the impending challenges presented by trying to connect technology with the integrity of the classroom. As we move towards a more technology-friendly campus and as the online learning community continues to expand, universities need to understand the threats facing the integrity of online exams. Instructor must find a format that combats a student mind-set viewing an assignment as “not real” and assesses a  student’s grasp of the course content.


What can we do to disincentivize this thought process? The instructor in this case took the first step in challenging the framework by reporting a potential violation. By forcing the student to confront the allegation and explain to what was done and why it was wrong, the instructor helped shift the student’s mindset. That one student will now stop and think before acting in a similar manner in the future.


We often hear that students claim that they made a mistake, and they will never do it again. Tearful confessions of wrongdoing may make students that go through our form of restorative justice think again before engaging in cheating, but is it enough to help the overall student population reframe their views of what counts as “academic work”? Until universities work together across departments, colleges, and offices, students might just graduate without the ethical values we strive to instill in them.