The Education Side-Hustle and the Absence of Quality Assurance

Topics: Blog, Editorial

We are all by now aware of the recent “admissions scandal” in the United States. What you may not have heard, is that Lori Loughlin (one of the indicted) is claiming that she didn’t realize what they were doing was illegal. After all, she was simply paying a “consultant” to help her kids and it seems reasonable to assume that we should be able to trust professionals to only provide legal, even ethical, help. And isn’t it reasonable that you should be able to trust your doctor, accountant, teacher, consultant and so on, to obey the rules and laws of the land?

While some may call Lori’s trust naive or her claims untrue, it is actually incidental to the actual problem at hand.

The actual problem we need to solve is this – there is no existing method for determining if a company, professional or service (herein called “provider”) claiming to help students access or advance in education is legitimate or ethical.

Providers purporting to help students or augment the formal education system are popping up everywhere today. Just recently, I was chased down by someone who says he’s developed a “learning support tool”. The tool, he said, transcribes the lecturer’s talk so that students no longer have to take notes. To be sure, this seems like a useful tool for some students who, for some legitimate reason, cannot take their own notes. But I asked the inventor how he can claim that it improves learning when many studies show that the process of hand note-taking is better for learning. He didn’t have a satisfactory answer for me.

This made me realize – there is no quality control (or assurance) on these Providers that operate as a “side-hustle” to the higher education sector. The higher education sector itself is subject to accreditation and, by extension, quality assurance (the quality of that quality is a discussion for another day). But these side-hustle Providers that claim to support or supplement education (like consultants, tutors, test-prep companies, editing services) are not.

It seems imperative, then, that we start asking some tough questions of these non-accredited Providers that claim to help our students. How do they define “helping”, “supporting”, and  “learning”? How do they measure when that has occurred? How do they monitor that and how do they respond if their employees do something that is a violation of standards?

In other words, I believe that the public deserves a quality assurance process and an accreditation “stamp” for such side-hustle Providers so that they (and we) know who is legitimate versus who isn’t, who is operating ethically versus who isn’t, and who will actually augment teaching and learning versus who will undermine it.

To begin this conversation, I thought it might be useful to brainstorm the categories of “side-hustle” Providers that exist. For now, I will do this without explicitly naming the company (so as not to give them free advertising or an implicit endorsement). 

Learning Platform Providers

There are some Providers who position themselves as “learning platforms”, that is, a site students can go to “enhance their learning”. These Providers generally offer two main services: file distribution and tutoring. The file distribution involves students uploading files (whether that be their own notes, a professor’s PPT, an exam answer key or even journal articles or book chapters) so that they get “credit” that they can use to download other files. The tutoring service is self-explanatory – tutors answer questions for students and “help” students with assignments. These companies usually have “honor codes” and they tell their clients not to share files that they don’t “own” and they tell their tutors not to complete assignments for the clients. However, there is evidence that these “honor code violations” happen regularly and it is unclear what actions the companies take to really prevent and respond to such violations. A quality assurance process would have to address these shortcomings.

Essay Writing Help Providers

There are other companies who position themselves as providing “essay writing help” or “model papers” or “reference papers”. We like to call these companies “contract cheating providers” because we know that this claim of “reference paper” provision is nonsense. However, are our students as clear about that? Recently I heard a story of how seductive these providers are – they use social media platforms like WeChat and Facebook to “friend” our students and offer them “help”. To be sure, our students should be more conscientious but a quality assurance or accreditation process might be able to provide students with the knowledge necessary to discern legitimate from illegitimate forms of essay writing help.

Editing Service Providers

I’ve previously written about the editors-for-hire phenomenon and believe that I’ve provided sufficient fodder for starting the discussion of quality assurance for editing services, so I won’t say any more here.

Tutoring Service Providers

There are still other Providers who only/mainly provide Tutors and Tutoring. The word Tutor carries a lot of weight and legitimacy with it. Without accreditation or quality assurance guidelines, can our students and parents tell the difference between legitimate tutoring and illegitimate? And, do we even agree on what makes tutoring “legitimate” or ethical?

Coaching Service Providers

Read “Operation Varsity Blues” – need I say more? Education consulting, particularly admissions consulting, seems to be a very lucrative and growing business yet I don’t even think we have a commonly understood definition of what this means. Students and their parents are spending thousands of dollars just to get into a school. Is this necessary? Are there legitimate reasons and purposes for these Providers to exist? If yes, what are those purposes and how do know who is delivering on those purposes honestly and in a trustworthy manner?

Test Prep Providers

This is the most well established side-hustle provider type and likely the most well-accepted in society. However, these companies are not really focused on helping students learn, but rather teaching students how to pass a particular test. Does this serve our students? Are all “test prep” companies the same? We have seen in “Operation Varsity Blues” that the integrity of these businesses is vulnerable with the way they are structured. So, do they need to be accredited as well?

Perhaps there are Provider types I haven’t even covered here, but the point is this – the side-hustle to the education sector is worth big money and it has a significant impact on the lives and learning of our students so shouldn’t they have some accountability to the public?

I encourage anyone who is interested in exploring this idea further to email content@academicintegrity.org.

About the Author
Tricia Bertram Gallant, Ph.D. is the author of Academic Integrity in the Twenty-First Century: A Teaching and Learning Imperative (Jossey-Bass, 2008), co-author of Cheating in School: What We Know and What We Can Do (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), editor of Creating the Ethical Academy: A Systems Approach to Understanding Misconduct & Empowering Change in Higher Education (Routledge, 2011), and section editor for the Handbook of Academic Integrity (Springer, 2016). She is the Director of the UC San Diego Academic Integrity Office and Board Member of the International Center for Academic Integrity, and has been an ethics lecturer with the Rady School of Management. When Tricia blogs, the content is hers and should not be attributed to her employer or ICAI.
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