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Cheating for an Easy Life

February 29, 2012

Cheating in education can take many forms. Whether it’s students looking for that elusive pass from the comfort of their beds, lecturers seeking the easy life or institutions inflating awards to staunch drop-out rates, over the last year cheating has been in the news with worrying regularity. In this post we look at some of the recent eruptions of malfeasance and try to uncover some of the common themes.

Students and the cheating industry

Everyone is familiar with cheating in examinations. Write down key ideas or formula and sneak it in to the exam. Whether its written on your arm or in your pencil case or even on your mobile phone, a quick glance at the right time can mean the difference between a pass and a fail.

For the more intrepid, you can always pay someone to impersonate you and take the test in your place. Eventually, they may get caught, but hopefully not before you get out the door.

But all of that is all so yesterday. Students today have a huge range of hi-tech cheating options to choose from. How about miniature earpieces or bluetooth pens or the infamous watch hack?

Of course, as our Minister for Education recently reminded us all, the student is now a consumer, and the savvy consumer shops around for what they need. And if that happens to be some scam to cheat your way to a degree, so be it.

How else can one explain the phenomenal success of writemyassignments.com?

The Jedward of Education

This company, set up by graduates of the Smurfit Business School, provides essays, reports, thesis etc for wealthy students too lazy to do the work themselves. These paragons of entrepreneurship even complete chartered surveyors and accountancy exams for you!

Not that you have to have money to get in on the act. According to a recent survey a full 54% of Trinity students are guilty of plagiarism. And then of course there are the free services.

For example, how about the document corrupter? Get that report deadline extended by corrupting a half-finished piece of trash and send it in before the deadline. Now you have time to get onto those folks in writemyassignment…

Or how about the How to cheat on a test website? There you can find 38 methods for cheating including video tutorials and related material.

Baron von Cut-and-paste

And it’s not just an undergraduate problem. Remember that dashing young German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg? Laid low by an embarrassing plagiarism expose for his PhD thesis.

His resignation was followed shortly by that of the German vice-president of the European Parliament, Silvana Koch-Mehrin, for plagiarism on 56 of the 201 pages in her 2001 thesis on the 19th century Latin Monetary Union in Europe.

Mind you, those who have been caught cheating don’t always have to fall on their swords. Take the case of the students caught cheating last year in their final year exams at GMIT. The penalty: a smack on the wrist as they were handed their awards. While it may have upset some staff enough to boycott the graduation ceremony, the punishment was hardly a disincentive for other students not to try the same.

Teachers on the game

But let’s not be too hard on students – after all, they are hardly the sole culprits. One truly bizarre spectacle of the last few years has been the outing of teachers in the US who have been caught changing answers on their students’ tests.

No wrong answer left behind

This post-exam cheating has been driven by George Bush’s “No Student Left Behind”  programme, in which students standardized test results are linked to teachers’ pay and school funding. According to a recent report, “politically motivated misuses of standardized exam scores” has put intolerable pressure on teachers to do the impossible and improve student performance year-on-year. And if the students aren’t willing to cheat for themselves, well then some teachers are willing to step into the breach it appears.

And let’s not forget that quagmire of self-assessment, third level education. With lecturers setting their own examinations, the scope for cheating is almost unlimited. The old adage of  “we pretend to teach and the students pretend to learn” is predicated on assessments being meaningless.

The only possible brake on lecturers seeking the easy life by inflating their students grades is a system of quality assurance that produces wads of paper and no enforcement. The system of external examination is patchy at best, with external examiners hand-chosen from a pool of like-minded individuals least likely to cause trouble.

And for those who try to fight against this system of mediocrity? Well, the scandals at Cork IT and IT Tralee show how the institutions themselves are only too willing to step in and do a bit of cheating themselves.

The result: Irish third level awards are being systematically devalued by inflated grades. This is now well-documented in the Institute’s of Technology and the universities, and is continuing apace. In the race for Technological University status one can only expect it to get worse.

Institutions are doing it for themselves

Looking more closely at the educational institutions, we see the scope for cheating is enormous.  A recent scandal in the US illustrates how it can easily happen. Take the standardized test scores of your students and inflate them so that you climb the college rankings. Ironically enough, it was a student newspaper that outed the scam at the prestigious private college, but the gaming of such rankings is widespread.

Here in Ireland, third level institutions have shown themselves  incapable of maintaining standards. Already drastically under-funded, subjected to an explosion in student numbers and a decimation of lecturing staff, they are struggling to maintain any semblance of quality.

Indeed, almost every Higher Education Authority initiative pressurizes the institutions into degrading their awards still further. Take the widespread introduction of student evaluation of lecturers, proven internationally to lower standards. Or the obsession with non-completion rates, which are to have financial implications for institutions under a new funding model. This will have one major effect: increased reluctance to fail even the weakest student.

Those being cheated at this level are the better students. As the quality of their educational experience declines, the good students are being swamped by the mediocre students at the behest of keeping the poor students from dropping out.

Former graduates are also being cheated, as they see the reputation of the awards they received being degraded year-on-year. And finally, society is being cheated, as our education system descends into profound mediocrity.

But where is the punishment for such cheating?

Addendum (11 March): The Independent on Sunday has led today with the story of 45,000 students caught cheating in Britain’s universities last year. Also there is a fascinating inside story written by someone who writes students’ essays for money, it’s called The Shadow Scholar.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2012 5:07 pm

    good students are being swamped by the mediocre students -food for thought and action

  2. 2things permalink
    March 9, 2012 11:37 am

    The blithe tolerance of the cheat is the great lie at the heart of our woefully under-supported education model. Academic structures which evolved to protect standards have been dismantled by bureaucrats who see universities/IoTs as businesses and students as customers. The people being cheated are our bright, honest students, honest staff, and the public who pay for our institutions.

    Thank you and congratulations for the brave, serious and important work you are doing to expose this.

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