Apr 19 2021

EdTech Goes Undercover: An Insider’s View of What Students Post on Contract Cheating Sites

Academic cheating sites are on the rise. Here’s what universities need to know about homework ghostwriters and unauthorized document sharing.

Editor’s Note: This is part 1 of a 2-part investigation. Part 2 covers how IT departments can detect and prevent contract cheating in higher education.

“Please complete my assignment,” a student posts on a microtutoring website that universities say facilitates contract cheating. The assignment is on the history of public health. APA format. Three sources. At least 750 words. In less than 15 minutes, EdTech sees a university ghostwriter accepting the assignment for $20.

There are hundreds of “homework help” websites that have seen an exponential increase in customers since the start of the pandemic. The services offered on sites like these typically run the gamut of legitimate tutoring to selling exam documents and answers. Some flat out offer to take an entire online course or exam for students.

The shadow industry of contract cheating falls into a legal gray area. When students and tutors make an account on a homework help site, they must sign a terms-of-service agreement and honor code that forbids academic cheating. But an undercover EdTech investigation found this agreement appears to be rarely enforced.

“I have definitely seen an increase in customers since the pandemic began,” Alex, an academic ghostwriter who currently works for a homework help site, tells EdTech. “Specifically, there has been an increase in the number of students posting that they want full online classes done for them. Most of the time, students have no problem finding a contractor.”

What Is Contract Cheating, and How Does It Work?

To avoid legal liability, some homework help sites are using automation tools to edit the language of posts. Whenever students submit a post, the first line always says something like “I need help understanding the assignment,” or “Help me learn.”

But EdTech saw this as mostly a cursory statement. Many students will also directly say, “Please complete my assignment.” Some even go so far as to request that the “tutor” be available at a certain date and time to take an online exam for them.

“I would say that 30 percent of the requests are for ‘help’ versus completing assignments,” a tutor for one of these sites told BRIGHT Magazine in 2016. “It is largely a place for students to cheat.”

When EdTech created a tutor account at a homework help site earlier this year, we found that not much has changed since the BRIGHT Magazine article came out five years ago.

Although students are blatantly asking for “tutors” to complete assignments and exams for them, EdTech saw academic ghostwriters making bids and accepting the work — often within minutes.

Students Hire Academic Ghostwriters to Take Online Courses for Them

Former and current academic ghostwriters also say that taking an entire online course for students is a common practice in the industry — a practice that has existed since the inception of online education. “That was always standard operating procedure,” says Dave Tomar, a former academic ghostwriter who started his decade-long career in contract cheating in 2000. He is currently the managing editor of Academic Influence, where he shares his insights on how educators can counter the surge of contract cheating during the pandemic.

“When I started doing this, I would frequently get these full online modules at the beginning of a rolling semester," Tomar says. “I got the full syllabus, and everything that I was expected to do over the next couple of months. Now, with countless students forced into remote learning, you have a whole new customer pool that is growing.”

As for how much students are willing to pay, the contractors charge “anywhere from $300 to $700 for a full class depending on the student, the subject and the difficulty,” says Alex, who currently works for a homework help site.

INSIDER EXCLUSIVE: Read Part 2 – What can universities do about contract cheating?

Fake Tutors Entice Unknowing Students to Engage in Contract Cheating

Academic cheating sites also strongly encourage students to sell their coursework— an act that may be illegal in 17 states.

“Distributing any post-secondary assignment for a profit with reasonable knowledge that it will be submitted by another person for academic credit is a crime in many US states,” Citron Research, an investment research firm that investigates overvalued fraudulent companies, stated in a report.

It’s a big problem for many institutions. According to Douglas Harrison, vice president and dean of the school of cybersecurity and information technology at the University of Maryland Global Campus, some of these contract cheating websites are “facilitating massive transfers of institutional proprietary material into their file-sharing systems.”

Harrison says many students may not even realize they are cheating when they download a university’s copyrighted classroom assessment materials because these websites reframe downloading answers to tests as a form of studying or tutoring. “They reframe file-sharing as educational, even though these are behaviors that conventional norms of academic integrity would consider misconduct,” he says.

Dave Tomar, former academic ghostwriter.
What is facilitating the surge of contract cheating is the fact that students are increasingly desperate and lacking support.”

Dave Tomar former academic ghostwriter.

To make matters worse, these websites have mastered sophisticated techniques to lure unsuspecting students. Several of these prominent homework tutoring sites will offer to give students a discount if they let their academic ghostwriter have access to the online course. This often results in the contract cheater stealing other students’ personal information.

“So the contract cheater then reaches out to other students and says, ‘I’m a tutor in your course. And I’ve helped another student in your class with their assignments. Would you like a little help?’” Harrison says, describing how the contract cheater pitches cheating “services” to other students.

This can be especially confusing for students, who may not know how to tell the difference between a contract cheater and a legitimate tutor who is affiliated with the university.

“Most of the students who we find in academic misconduct settings after inappropriately using materials on these sites, they did not set out to be malicious cheaters. Now that doesn’t mean we don’t hold them accountable, but we have to hold them accountable in proportion to the root cause of the situation,” Harrison says.

Who Is Using Academic Ghostwriters?

According to the ghostwriters who are contracted to help students cheat, their customers are usually underserved students who need access to remedial courses, and nontraditional students who struggle to balance coursework with full-time employment.

“I would argue that what is facilitating the surge of contract cheating is the fact that students are increasingly desperate and lacking support,” says Tomar.

During Tomar’s time as an academic ghostwriter, he caught glimpses into their personal circumstances. “Some would tell you they are a parent working full time. And they just can’t deal with this challenge right now. Some say, ‘I’ve invested X number of dollars into this education, and I cannot afford to fail this class. But I don’t know how to do this assignment.’”

Alex mentions that many are also English language learners. “As I noted, some students are asking for whole classes to be done, and a lot of those are English or writing-intensive courses,” he says. “That does not mean that they are ESL, but [my sense is] most of them are.”

To fundamentally address the cheating pandemic, universities and colleges may need to invest in more resources for vulnerable student populations.

“It begins with figuring out who’s struggling, why they’re struggling and what we can do to help them before they end up as contract cheating customers,” Tomar says.

INSIDER EXCLUSIVE: Read Part 2 – What can universities do about contract cheating?

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