Students are being targeted in college WhatsApp groups to sign up for paid-for essays and other academic cheating services.
Contract cheating is illegal, but service provider “plants” are infiltrating class groups to lure unsuspecting social media “friends” into a web that can have serious consequences for students.
It is happening on higher education campuses in Ireland, according to the State’s academic standards watchdog, Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI).
A typical example is where a student posts a message in a college class group expressing exasperation about assignments and a “plant” offers “homework help”.
Ireland is no exception to what is a major and growing international problem that has become even more acute since Covid and the more widespread use of online assessment.
Contract cheating is when someone else completes work for a student, which is then passed off by the student as their own work.
Essay writing services, known as “essay mills”, are common, easily sourced and may proactively target students through the use of artificial intelligence bots or other means.
There is also rapid growth in services offering answers to popular questions, which students can easily access even in “live” online exams
It poses serious challenges for academic integrity if students are being awarded grades that are not based on their own work.
What students often do not realise is that they are the victims and using these services may jeopardise their qualification and their career.
Blackmail is a common weapon used by the contract cheating criminals, who may even threaten to expose the student if they do not pay even more money than originally agreed
QQI head of partnerships Karena Maguire said there were known local examples of blackmail, including essay organisations telling institutions that students had not paid up, even if they had.
QQI’s efforts to tackle the problem includes the establishment of the National Academic Integrity Network (NAIN) in 2019.
Irish and international experience indicate that social media platforms are increasingly the primary avenue for the promotion and sale of cheating services to learners.
Ireland has led the way in Europe in cracking down on contract cheating, and it is now illegal to provide or advertise cheating services or to publish ads promoting them.
QQI is following up with tech companies, including Google and Meta, seeking their agreement to block this illegal activity from their platforms.
DoneDeal has already agreed to remove offending ads from its site.
Mairéad Boland, QQI senior manager of academic integrity regulation said the watchdog has had very positive engagement with TikTok, which had already removed some profiles from its social media platform and has committed to revising its community guidelines to ensure provision of contract cheating services were not tolerated.
“We are hoping other social media platforms will engage in the same way with us, We really need them to work with us to ensure our students are not being targeted,” she said.
QQI is also increasing awareness and capacity within higher education to recognise and deal with the issue.
Last week it ran a series of masterclasses, led by Dr Kane Murdoch, head of the Student Conduct and Integrity Unit at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney, Australia.
Senior academic staff and student representatives from across the higher education sector participated in the classes, which aimed to provide a practical toolkit to understand, detect, investigate and manage cases of academic misconduct.
Mr Murdoch also spoke about how to develop policies that support academic integrity and how to support students to keep them on the right path.
UNSW Sydney has developed a number of approaches for investigating and sanctioning misconduct, including “courageous conversations” with students, which focus on rehabilitation and redemption rather than expulsion.
This involves asking students to grade information on their involvement with contract cheating providers for a reduced penalty, as well as a requirement to engage in academic integrity training.
“We have the students’ interests at heart,” Mr Murdoch added.