Student essays for sale: the underside of online education, and seeking to police it – can it be done? #mscedc

A Guardian article reports:

Thinking back and forth about online ‘community cultures’, this article highlights various shadow-sides of digital capabilities within education.

For instance, who (or what – bots?) writes these essays, or a PhD for £6,750, minus the profit margin? The conditions of production by “essay mill websites” would be a research area in itself. One imagines a certain precarious ‘gig economy’ behind what the articles calls this “big business”, but perhaps it’s much more algorithmised than that.

Second, in a tit-for-tat reminiscent of cryptography and code-breakers, how are educational institutions able to police such matters? The MOOCs I’ve looked at for my mini-ethnography seem to rely on self-certification. Clearly the instances reported in this article are much more serious – or are taken as such. Can the Fraud Act (2006) deal with the offence, as one link in the article suggests? As an associated blog summarises, this is not unproblematic, especially if the products sold are marketed as “custom study aids”.

The digital cultures and their associated technologies generate new markets, new configurations, indeed new community-assemblages not known thirty years ago. As that blog comments:

“Current approaches also rely on detecting the custom-written essays in the first place, and then identifying a ‘victim’. Not easy when the many actors in the process; student, university, writer, company and websites, can all be in different countries. Nevertheless, we would hope that a legal approach would at least act as a deterrent to would-be users of these services and serve as a lever to change behaviour.”

Its solution seems to be assessments that “are rigorous and less open to completion by a third party”, and “We need to make sure it is preferable for students to ‘do the right thing’; make sure they have access to the resources and support they need to undertake meaningful learning that prepares them for their chosen path post-graduation, which purchased assignments will not.”

It’s hard, sometimes, to see where blue-sky thinking also becomes wishful thinking, given human nature. As the Guardian article concludes, good old-fashioned stick is out there alongside carrot – expulsion and disqualification: assuming, of course, a continued quality-control body like the UK’s QAA.

A lot hangs on such matters, for institutions and individuals alike. And niches and opportunities are the very essence of digital community cultures.

[And, for those involved in these matters, the Guardian would like to hear from you: ]