Shopping interrupted: Blocking access to contract cheating

Blocking access to gambling or pornography websites on postsecondary institutions’ networks seems like an obvious choice, but this was not always the case. The three of us were students in the late 1990s and 2000s when computer and internet access grew on the campuses we attended. At the time, it seemed that students could access any websites in computer labs easily, at least in our courses, which disrupted our learning and created an unsafe environment. With information technology on campuses intended to support teaching, learning, and research activities, decisions were made to block access to websites that did not support these educational objectives.

Fast forward 15-20 years and we are faced with an aggressive online predator disrupting learning, often using social media to target students. Although not a recent phenomenon, individuals and companies offering services to complete students’ coursework, provide answers to assessments, and swap course materials are a growing problem throughout the world known as contract cheating. Advances in technology have been beneficial but may also have facilitated the rapid growth of a multi-million dollar per year contract cheating industry. Contract cheating websites appear to feed an already existing mindset held by many that learning is transactional not transformational; this illicit industry may be helping to shift the point of an education to passively receiving grades and credentials rather than appreciating and engaging in the learning process. 

We must also question what we are doing as educators on an individual level and at institutional levels to discourage use of third parties to complete academic work. The three of us primarily work at the individual level to support other educators at our three post-secondary institutions in Manitoba, Canada. During the 2019 academic year, we decided to push for an institutional level initiative that is fairly novel in Canada. We worked with our administrators and IT departments to implement the blocking of nearly 1,000 contract cheating and file-sharing websites on campus networks. We looked to the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and the Australian Government: Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) and the many researchers working in Europe, Australia, and Canada for guidance on how to move forward. Working in partnership on this project allowed us to implement a simple and concrete (although partial) solution to an important problem “right now.” We were not so naïve to think that this initiative would eliminate contract cheating, rather, we decided to move forward on this strategy as part of a multi-pronged approach to promote academic integrity and prevent academic misconduct.

Throughout this project, we learned several important lessons. First, we learned that it is not always easy to identify contract cheating services as they may masquerade as tutoring services. Although legitimate tutoring services exist, the lines between cheating and tutoring are often blurred as contract cheating websites use the same educational language that legitimate educators may use. Second, we learned that many more instructors and administrators are completely unaware of the contract cheating industry than we first believed, and our project sparked discussion amongst academic staff and served to educate them about this issue. Third, we learned that postsecondary institutions that use out-of-the-box ‘cheating’ filters may be classifying file-sharing sites as ‘online shopping’. This means that access to contract cheating websites may not be blocked on our campus networks as intended. A fourth lesson that we learned through tracking website traffic is that many students are indeed accessing these sites and while we cannot say for sure that students then purchased the advertised services, it is disheartening to know that students are checking this out as an option rather than spending the time studying or seeking support from their instructors. We also implemented an educational component to our URL blocking initiative. Students at one of our institutions would have seen an educational message about academic integrity and that they may be attempting to access services that violate our academic integrity policies. Our final lesson here is that pairing URL blocking with a more comprehensive educational initiative about the short- and long-term consequences of outsourcing academic work is likely to be much more effective that blocking URLs alone. We outlined the details of our initiative in a practitioner article in the Canadian Perspectives on Academic Integrity (in press).

In recent months, the novel coronavirus has changed education in ways that we might never have imagined. Students are no longer on physical campuses but are completing and submitting coursework largely in the virtual world, and may be tempted to outsource their academic work. URL blocking initiatives put into place at our three institutions will not deter students from accessing contract cheating websites as long as they are studying at home. Therefore, educating students about contract cheating and, more broadly, academic integrity, needs to ramp up in online and remote learning. Students need more information about the short- and long-term consequences of engaging in this form of misconduct. Students need to think critically about the choices they make in this unprecedented time and their responsibility to complete their course requirements with integrity. As educators, it is important for us to emphasize the values and ethics of education rather than focusing only on rules, don’ts, and policies when we discuss these matters with our students. 

The next steps in this project are to find new ways to support the entire “village” of students, faculty, and administrators to better understand contract cheating and engage them more actively as partners in its prevention. By combining educational, organizational, and preventative strategies, we can increase the likelihood that students will engage in transformative online learning rather than shopping to passively receive a credential.

About the Authors

Josh Seeland works at the Assiniboine Community College (ACC) Library in Brandon, MB, Canada, where his primary duties include research initiatives and library instruction/outreach at ACC locations across Manitoba. He is a member of the Manitoba Academic Integrity Network (MAIN) and chairs ACC’s Academic Integrity Advisory Committee. Seeland holds Bachelor of Arts in History and Philosophy from the University of Manitoba and a diploma in Library and Information Technology from Red River College. 

Brenda M. Stoesz currently works at The Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB, Canada, where she develops educational resources and professional development opportunities for post-secondary academic staff. Stoesz also conducts research on academic integrity, with a primary focus on academic integrity policy analysis and contract cheating. She founded and chairs Manitoba Academic Integrity Network (MAIN). Stoesz holds a PhD in Psychology and Bachelors of Education and Science. She has more than 20 years of experience teaching high school, college, and university students.  

Lisa Vogt works at Red River College in Winnipeg, MB, Canada. She is an EAL Specialist supporting students in Civil Engineering Technology programs who speak English as an additional language. As a member of Manitoba Academic Integrity Network (MAIN), she integrates integrity informed practices into her work with faculty and students. Vogt holds a Bachelor of Arts in Intercultural Studies, TESOL certification from Providence College, and a Certificate in Adult and Continuing Education from the University of Manitoba.


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