Turnitin: How do you define contract cheating and what does it look like today?
Tricia Bertram Gallant: Contract cheating is when someone else completes an assessment for a student that the student then submits, or attempts to submit, for credit. Sometimes a student is asking their friend for a favor, and they aren't paying that friend to complete their work. Students also go on social media sites like Craigslist or Facebook to connect with people who will take exams or write papers for them either in person or online.
Many times, students go to "free" essay sites where they can search for and download a generic paper without paying. Those papers aren't very good. They contain obvious plagiarism and students are typically caught for handing one in.
What's more concerning is that there are websites where students can pay for someone to write a custom paper for them. The price depends on deadline, the number of words, topic, and even the grade that they will receive—an "A" paper may cost more than a "C" paper. On websites like this, students can pay for services with money or credits. They can earn credits by liking something on the website, referring their friends, or by uploading syllabi, exams, or notes from their classes—their professor's intellectual property. Students can use these credits to access other professors' materials, pay for tutoring services, or pay for someone to write a paper or assignment.
Tii: Of all potential ethical issues in education, why is the ICAI focusing on contract cheating?
TBG: When a student cheats it doesn't become a problem as long as we address it and the student learns from it. I consider cheating as a teaching and learning issue. Contract cheating feels fundamentally different. This is not a normal person making a bad decision and copying from their suite-mate at 2 AM or looking at their neighbor's exam in a panic situation. At an individual level, it is a blatant disregard for the purpose of education.
At an institutional level, we are graduating people that don't have the skills we say that they do. It's outrageous that students can receive a degree without actually doing any of the work required for the degree. This is an assault on universities, colleges, and high schools. Our responsibility is to confer degrees. We consider those degrees as a proxy for skills. Employers operate on the assumption that if you have a degree, you have those skills.
Surveys show that higher education is already losing trust among the American people. I can't help but think that is partly because they are hiring university graduates that do not have the skills they should. If contract cheating continues to rise as an industry, it is only going to exacerbate the problem. Society fundamentally operates on a basis of trust. If higher education continues to lose the public's trust, it may become more externally regulated. It will be treated as a transactional industry rather than a transformational one.
Tii: What is the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI)?
TBG: ICAI was founded by Don McCabe, a business professor at Rutgers University, in 1992. He was noticing cheating in his classes and wanted to determine if it was happening elsewhere. McCabe conducted a survey on academic integrity in higher education that revealed the prevalence of cheating in the country. During the first few years, ICAI focused on what to do about the cheating problem. The mission then shifted to educating institutions about how to create a culture of academic integrity.
ICAI has since expanded internationally and now has members from institutions around the world. We still conduct the McCabe survey for institutions because you need awareness before you can design remedies. ICAI is the institution for thinking about academic integrity and instilling academic integrity on campuses.
Tii: October 18th is the International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating. What is the purpose of this day?
TBG: The day is about generating moral awareness, even moral panic, about the extent of contract cheating. Contract cheating sites are legal. Why is no one in an uproar over that? There is some legislation on the books, but there is not a lot of action or follow through, no public outrage or outcry. As a society, we need to stand up and say "enough!" and make it extremely difficult for these contract cheating providers to operate. But we need to raise awareness first.
On the day of action, institutions are getting people to make whiteboard declarations for integrity and against contract cheating, and these declarations will then be shared through social media. We're hoping that tweets and the hashtags (#defeatthecheat, #excelwithintegrity) will trend and that this will attract a politician or news outlet's attention. We would rather people pay attention to the issue now before there is a systemic crisis that is more difficult to combat. We continue to ignore it, and we continue to allow these companies to flourish. The websites aren't even ashamed that they are offering this service, take a look for yourself. However, we know that there is still shame within society because the owners will not reveal themselves. So, at this point in time, there is still hope that we can correct this issue while the owners remain in the shadows of society's disapproval.
Tii: What can institutions do to identify and prevent contract cheating?
TBG: We need accreditation and quality assurance agencies to care about this. It's truly about the quality of the education. These agencies need to ask institutions about what they are doing to ensure academic integrity.
Institutions themselves should institutionalize academic integrity as a routine part of their academic programs. If contract cheating occurs, faculty should respond to it and report it. Studies show that faculty under-report the amount of cheating going on. Students are going to learn from cheating. They are going to learn if we don't respond, and they are going to learn if we do respond. If we do respond, they will learn about the importance of academic integrity. If we don't respond, they will think that cheating is a good strategy.
Institutions can also prevent contract cheating by designing good assessments, getting to know your students writing, and giving writing assignments in class. To support these efforts, ICAI has created an Institutional Toolkit to Combat Contract Cheating, which is available for download.
The views expressed in this interview are Tricia Bertram Gallant's views and should not be attributed to the institutions with which she is affiliated. This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.