Colum Kenny: Written exams would stump internet cheats
Government plans to tackle online ‘essay mills’ fall well short of powers needed to level the playing field in our educational system
Besides having access to an endless amount of material online, students of some social classes have experienced friends and parents who can lend a hand with continuous assessment assignments. Photograph: Getty
The Government has announced planned new powers to prosecute “essay mills” and other forms of academic cheating. However, the powers as outlined may make little difference to the ability of students to buy essays online and to use the internet in other ways to complete their work with too little effort.
The internet has transformed education, and the way that students can use the web even honestly undermines the value of continuous assessment as a means of gauging ability.
Old-fashioned examinations may be unpopular but, when properly arranged, can be a better way of ensuring that students read widely and deeply. They exclude the possibility of a family member or friend or paid service doing assessed work for a student.
The Government’s plan is a strategic one, part of a proposed package of reforms to protect the reputation of the State’s higher and further education sectors (including English language providers) so that more students from outside Ireland will pay to study here. The reforms are welcome if they are more than window-dressing.
At present, it is easy to buy an essay online. Many of the essay-writing services are located overseas, and it will probably not be possible in practice to prosecute these or impede the servers they use to promote themselves.
One such essay service, for example, boasts 32,243 “satisfied customers” and 154,929 “completed assignments” by 370 “qualified writers”.
The site is enticing, and uses data to argue sympathetically that students must cope with unreasonable economic and other pressures. It provides essays from school to doctoral level on a broad range of “hard” science and other topics. Prices vary depending on the deadline and number of academic references required, but they are not high.
Besides the fact that many such services are beyond the jurisdiction of Irish courts, there is also a problem of proof.
Thus, the outlined Bill includes phrases that may make a conviction difficult. The service must be “completing an assignment” and this must be “in the stead” of a student required to do so. But what if a student tweaks an essay and completes it himself, or claims that the online essay was used only as a research tool?
The online essay services already anticipate such laws and also the existing rules of universities against plagiarism. One, for example, explains how “Using this service is legal and is not prohibited by any university/college policies,” because use of its service can be just “to gain additional knowledge” or because a student can “paraphrase the ideas”.
A dull student who simply cuts and pastes material online may be easy to spot. It may also be easy for a European English-speaking academic to recognise text that has been written in the United States. But a smart student reworks such an essay to render it into their usual style. Interrogating a student about their access to works referenced in an essay is an exercise fraught with ethical and legal pitfalls.
Bought essays are frequently original work by paid persons and should not be confused with plain plagiarism or the copying of work found online or elsewhere. They may not be picked out by automated plagiarism detection systems.
There have always been people willing to write essays for cash. One used to frequent the National Library of Ireland forty years ago. But the internet has turned the service into an industry.
The web also makes it possible for an intelligent student to complete an essay rapidly and confidently in a short space of time without using paid services. There is a staggering amount of quality work available now at the click of a mouse, especially for college students with access to academic periodicals online. Students can cherry-pick findings to fling together a more than adequate essay.
And for students of some social classes there are experienced friends and parents who can lend a hand with continuous assessment assignments at second- or third-level in a way that unfairly disadvantages others, especially students from less privileged backgrounds.
Catching cheats is made even harder by unwieldy lecture groups and class sizes larger than best academic practice.
On Monday, Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton stated that the plan is intended “to strengthen our reputation for quality,” and that “this is particularly important for overseas students where we hope to increase the value of the sector by 33 per cent to €2.1 billion by 2020.”
But is it not “particularly important” for Irish students too that the system is fair? The continuing value of continuous assessment, including essays, needs to be examined afresh.
Colum Kenny is emeritus professor of communications at Dublin City University