March 2019

In my ICAI 2019 conference presentation, “Improv(ing) Course Design: A Riff on Experiential Learning and Academic Integrity,” I shared the research of James Lang, L. Dee Fink, John Biggs and Catherine Tang, Lion Gardiner, and Tricia Bertram Gallant as underpinning for my redesign experiments with EN 455, an Advanced Studies in Writing course at The University of Alabama. I call my newly imagined course “Dirt Poor: Researching and Writing the Great Depression” (first taught in spring 2018, teaching now, and slated again for spring 2020).

“Dirt Poor” is an experiential learning opportunity that includes authentic assessments in addition to active and collaborative learning strategies to foreground academic integrity and help students become so engaged in their research and writing tasks that they don’t consider cheating an option.

I initially had two concerns for the new course: finding an engaging hook and managing the organic nature of the class. I addressed the first by tapping into my own interest in genealogical research, using the free library edition of available in UA’s library databases as a course tool. The second is still a challenge--but one that makes the course as exciting for me as for the students.

Dirt Poor: How does it work?

During the first two class meetings, I introduce students to and remind them (with activities) of ethical source-based writing skills—summary, paraphrasing and avoiding patchwriting, quoting, and correct and ethical citation and documentation (and why these skills are professionally important). I ask them to start doing genealogical research on their own family and then eventually select any one “lost” relative alive during the Great Depression to serve as their subject in an expanded semester-long research project. I then help the students learn basic historical facts about the time period by using  children’s books as the basis of a group presentation project. Next the students explore two more research elements: 1) visual texts (exploring, analyzing—and citing—images from the online Library of Congress FSA photo collection), and 2) archival research (exploring the ephemera holdings of UA’s Special Collections Library and creating an annotated bibliographical catalog description—with citation—as a resource for future researchers).

In the final two-thirds of the semester, the students settle in to research their relative and the historical and cultural contexts of that person’s world. They conduct interviews, use research-library databases, explore historical newspapers, investigate government documents, track down whatever other sources might contribute to a more complete picture of their own family history. From this research, they produce two essays: a shorter descriptive piece focused on an artifact that might be associated with their relative, and a longer profile piece that offers a narrative portrait, fleshing out that person’s life, especially during the Great Depression.

Another feature of my course redesign is modelling: I write all of the assignments along with my students, so they see me struggling with the same writing and research issues that they are facing. We work together to solve the same problems:  to restore a lost relative and to produce better writing.

I’ve watched it happen in both semesters I’ve taught the course: students start out ambivalent and then they get hooked. Suddenly they are doing significant research on someone in their own family—someone they have chosen to learn more about—and they are doing significant critical thinking and problem-solving and writing and revising—much of which we do in class, together. Suddenly they are sharing their work-in-progress and offering each other source ideas, research angles, even ideas about hooks and organizational frameworks—both during and apart from our face-to-face and online peer review sessions. Ethical research and writing practices weave their way through everything we do all semester.

Toward the end, with help from the Alabama Digital Humanities Center (ADHC), we move our work onto a public-facing Web site; and, at the end of the semester, the students showcase their work at an ADHC faculty development brown bag lunch presentation.

In an Inside Higher Ed blog in September 2018, John Warner asks “What Happens When Writing Is Fun?” He talks about giving students five freedoms:  freedom of choice, of form, of time, freedom to discover, and freedom to roam and realize “the payoff of curiosity.” “Engender[ing] these experiences for students . . . isn’t easy,” he says, but “when it clicks . . . it really is magic.” For me, an experiential-learning course design, one that fuses academic integrity instruction with active and collaborative learning activities and authentic research and writing experiences, produces exactly that kind of learning magic.

The higher education is sector is talking about contract cheating. When a student replaces themselves with a third party for the purposes of assessment, they stand to gain qualifications that they don’t deserve. They are also devaluing the qualifications for everyone around them.

My session at the 2019 International Center for Academic Integrity annual conference - Contract Cheating in the Gig Economy - focused on how the contract cheating industry has been changing (for a copy of this presentation. The industry has become a complex beast, fueled by low-cost writing labour completing the assessments that we would expect students to complete.

When Robert Clarke and I first introduced the term contract cheating in 2006, we focused on how students were misusing outsourcing websites to connect with providers to have academic work completed for them. The outsourcing websites were set up for perfectly legitimate reasons. As an example, a business could tender a request for someone to create a new website for them, then hire someone based on the offers received. But students misused these sites. They were posting requests for various assignments, which were then offered to a range of providers through a bidding process. Students could get their assignment produced cheaply, and dishonestly, by hiring one of the least expensive of those providers.

Most of the recent academic discussion on contract cheating has focused on the use of essay mills. These are services that offer assignment production services to students, often targeted at vulnerable students, such as those with English as a second language. These services connect with students through social media, by giving out flyers on university campuses and some have even found ways to cold call students on their personal phones. There are substantial businesses operating in this space, some with revenues of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

An interesting industry development, as my ICAI talk mentioned, is that many essay mills have the same internal model of operation as the original freelance sites Robert Clarke and I talked about in 2006. The difference is that the bids and interactions on those essay mills are hidden from public view. The internal operation of such services is also not known by students. They can easily be misled as to who is writing an essay for them, for instance by expecting a US writer but their request secretly going to someone operating from somewhere else in the world.

I continue to be fascinated by all the developments going on around contract cheating. The industry is not standing still and is very resistant to any university developments designed to reduce its effectiveness. If anything, more people are trying to work as academic writers for contract cheating services and those writers already operating are becoming more resourceful. That has led to companies competing on price and individual writers trying to avoid paying commission to the intermediary companies, instead connecting directly with students.

My session at the ICAI conference focused on the gig economy type sites that individual writers are using. On one such site,, for example, I found a proliferation of writers from Kenya offering services to students. Here, the job of an academic writer actually carries with it prestige and is presented as a respectable profession. Writers have the benefits of being able to work from home. To an outside audience, the ways in which Kenyan writers are employed could be looked at as exploitative. I found an average price point for essay writing of around $30 USD per 1,000 words, which is well below the cost of a traditional essay mill. But, relatively speaking, in that region essay writers could think of this as good money. Of course, $30 USD per 1,000 words is not the only price point. Many of the essay mills who take a large commission from orders pay writers much less.

With the wide availability of low cost labour, continued heavy marketing of contract cheating services and the gig economy driving down prices, contract cheating will continue to offer us challenges. I believe that more research into the industry itself and the writers supplying the industry is needed. We need to understand why qualified individuals are looking at enabling contract cheating as a good career choice. We need to continue to broadcast the message to instructors that contract cheating is cheap, is happening and that many assessment types are susceptible to it. And we have to put interventions in place to stop students falling into the contract cheating trap.

ICAI just held its 27th annual conference. This was the 14th conference I’ve attended and one of the best I’ve attended in recent years. The diversity of attendees in terms of geography (participants from 6 continents!), institution type (For-Profits, NGOs, like-minded associations, Secondary Schools to Higher Education), and positions (students and professionals) enriched our thinking. The diversity in sessions enhanced our knowledge and understanding. And the proactive, collaborative and activist tone emboldened our belief that we can make a difference - with our collected efforts, we can make cheating the exception and integrity the norm.

For those who couldn’t attend, I wanted to share my key take-away lessons from the conference. Over the next few weeks, I aim to publish posts by others who attended/presented so Blog readers can benefit from their knowledge and ideas as well.

Lesson #1 - We Need More.

We need more attention.
We need more time.
We need more resources.
We need more urgency.

ICAI was created in 1992 in response to the cheating problem identified in Don McCabe’s work (in the event you are unfamiliar, you can see a good summary of Don's work in Cheating in College). And while the problem has metastasized over this time and there is greater awareness around the world about the problem, there is still a small fraction of the global system of educational institutions and government entities who acknowledge the problem of cheating and the importance of integrity.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it here again - our leaders need to attend to this now before it reaches an unacceptable level of corruption. They can attend to this with their words, with their attention, and with their resources.

Lesson #2 - We Are United in Our Struggles.

No matter where we are geographically located, those of us who work and study in schools, colleges and universities around the world struggle with cheating, and we struggle to get leaders to contribute resources to academic integrity, to keep our policies up-to-date, to educate our students about integrity, and to convince our faculty that their approach to teaching impacts our students' approaches to learning and integrity.

We must not only be united in our struggles, but we must be united in our confrontation and resolution of those struggles. And, the ICAI - with its mission of cultivating integrity in academic communities around the world in order to promote ethical institutions and societies - is tooling up to be the hub of that united front.

Lesson #3 - We Must Act Against Contract Cheating.

Perhaps our biggest shared struggle right now are the threats posed by the industry of contract cheating, We already knew that contract cheating undermines student learning and the integrity of our educational institutions, but presentations by Cath Ellis, David House & Kane Murdoch (of University of New South Wales, Sydney Australia), Thomas Lancaster (of Imperial College London), and Douglas Harrison (of UMUC) reminded us that it also endangers our students. Students are being tricked and seduced into the contract cheating world, where they not only have their education and identities stolen but where they also face threats of extortion. To respond to this threat, we need the appropriate tools, policies and procedures to identify and respond to contract cheating, as well as a rethink of our approach to teaching and learning and a reconsideration for what measures should be used as the bases for admissions and graduation decisions. Our international day of action against contract cheating (the third Wednesday of October each year) is a good start for responding to the threat - as Evangeline Mourelatos of Deree, American College of Greece and I argued in our conference presentation - and we encourage more institutions to join us on the 4th day of action on October 16th 2019.*

Contract cheating presents us with a problem, to be sure, but it also presents us with an opportunity - a reason - to rethink the way in which we do education in the 21st century.

Lesson #4 - We Are Doing Good Work.

The jewel of the conference is seeing the absolutely fantastic and diverse work being done by professionals and students around the world to make cheating the exception and integrity the norm.

We learned from those who are working to proactively educate our students about academic integrity, whether through integrity tutorials like those at Ryerson University and Sheridan College (both in Canada), honesty awareness weeks like that at Aldelphi University (in the USA), or new academic integrity courses like those being implemented in Ukrainian Secondary Schools.

Many people spoke to us about their work on integrity culture creation like that being done by Azalea Hulbert (West Virginia University, USA), the Emory Integrity Project (Emory University, USA), and the University of Monterrey (Mexico). We learned about how we can improve our responses to integrity violations from the folks at MacEwan University (Canada) who talked about implementing restorative practices in academic integrity processes, the team at the College of William & Mary (USA) who shared their new mentoring program to enhance student success and retention after suspension, and the research being conducted by Adriana Barberena (University of Monterrey, Mexico) on what students learn through the process.

I was inspired by curricular changes intended to motivate students to engage in mastery and integrity, rather than performance and cheating. There is the unique “designing with light and meaning” project within an engineering course, presented by Nathalia Franco at EAFIT (Columbia), and the very creative and engaging “dirt poor” writing course created by Karen Gardiner at the University of Alabama (USA).

I could say more. But I’ll end here with a hope that many of the presenters - including those mentioned above - will choose to share their wonderful research, practice and ideas with you through their own blog posts.

Yes, we need more and we share the same struggles, but we are doing good work.

Personally, I think I will try to bask in the "good work" light for a bit and revel in the goodness we are engendering before I dive back into the struggles. After all, the struggles will still be there tomorrow.



* sentence added after original posting

University of Wollongong in Dubai has been participating in the International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating consistently since its inception more than three years ago.

Dr Zeenath Reza Khan, Assistant Professor and Head of Integrity in Academic and Beyond Research & Learning Forum at the university began researching in the area in 2005 and successfully completed a PhD thesis in 2014. When ICAI announced the first International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating, Dr Khan along with her cohort of student volunteers joined in and collectively spread the word on campus and had a great response to the “whiteboard declarations” (see Zeenath's twitter feed for examples!). In fact, by the second year, the momentum had increased, with student clubs and faculty members showing strong interest in becoming part of the campaign.

So in 2017, the team organized a whole Week of Actions against Contract Cheating with some funding from the Asia Pacific Forum on Educational Integrity. The week saw student clubs organizing workshops to engage participants in understanding the psychology behind cheating, arguing impact of policies and ending with a colloquium of presentations by both faculty and students and a poster competition.

In 2018, the event grew to mammoth proportions, with the organizing team increasing to include Dr Sabiha Mumtaz, supported by the UOW-UOWD Global Challenges Academic Integrity Grant and going beyond contract cheating to celebrate a Week of Actions Against Academic Misconduct. With participation from other universities, students and faculty, the week included library awareness sessions, workshops on policies and the importance of an educative approach, research presentations by Education Program Leader and Research Associate Dean, and an enlightening panel discussion of students and faculty discussing and debating student attitude towards academic misconduct, including contract cheating. The campaigns took the concept of a day of action against contract cheating, growing in size and scope over the years to become a collective voice that highlights interest from the student body, both undergraduate and postgraduate, with students joining as part of organizing team or as participants. The impact of the campaigns has in fact been very substantial with documented cases of students and alumni alike now regularly speaking out against contract cheating services and advertisements targeting them.