With absolutely no apologies to The Wall Street Journal.
A year of absolute, unprecedented bullshit has spurred an eruption of cheating among students, from grade school to college. With many students isolated at home over the past year—and with the pointless grind of school revealed for what it truly is—academic dishonesty has never been such an obviously reasonable choice.
Some pedants fear the new generation of cheaters will be loath to stop even after the pandemic recedes. “Students have finally found a way to avoid my bullshit, and worse, they know it works,” said Phineas Whateley, senior teaching fellow in soup calculation at Royal University College in London, who has studied academic integrity issues for more than two decades, though apparently without learning anything of value. He said cheating sites number in the thousands, from individuals to large-scale operations.
Concerned about his West Carolina State University students cheating in a statistics class, Richard Penistone launched a plan.
Rather than writing a more reasonable exam, or spending time helping students master the material, Mr. Penistone, a course coordinator, wasted countless hours writing a computer program that generated a unique set of questions for each student. Those questions quickly showed up on a for-profit homework website that helped him to identify who posted them.
About 200 students were caught cheating—one-fourth of the class. Yet somehow Mr. Penistone was more concerned about punishing these 19-year-olds than he was that he had created a class that 25% of his students decided was such bullshit that they couldn’t be arsed to even attempt the final exam.
We note that Mr. Penistone is a course coordinator, not faculty. We assume he’s not tenured; he doesn’t even have an advanced degree. What is his deep-seated loyalty to this West Carolina State University, exactly? Do they pay him so especially well, that he is roused to stay up late writing code to generate and distribute 800 totally unique exams?
Overall, cases of academic dishonesty more than doubled in the 2019-20 academic year at WC State, with the biggest uptick as students were forced into the absurdity that is the Zoom classroom, according to the school.
Educators say stress and pressure, possibly related to the global pandemic maybe???, are a big reason why students cheat. “Especially in a time of stress, they realize that there are more important things than the rote memorization and regurgitation we force them to do on exams,” said Myra Capwell, president of the International Global Center for Academic Honor, Security, and Integrity, and director of the Kansas-Nebraska-Indiana Interstate University Dignified Honor and Integrity System.
Lucien Hoyt, an 18-year-old freshman at Mamimi University in Cambridge, Ohio, said he knows students who have used homework help sites for studying—and (brace yourself, dear reader) for cheating. He said he hasn’t cheated himself, but then again, he knows we’re narcs, so he would say that.
He said students, including himself, are frustrated with virtual learning because it throws into stark relief how artificial these courses are, and how none of it matters. “I haven’t struggled this way with learning material, ever,” he said. “In the classroom I had the vague sense I might actually be getting an education. But with the trappings stripped away, it just becomes so clear that what they’re asking us to do is total busywork.”
At the K-12 level, schools are free to indulge their whimsy to become miniature police states, and many block a range of homework help websites from district computers to prevent cheating. Ultimately even this exercise in authoritarianism is pointless, however, since this doesn’t stop a student from visiting the site from a different device.
Middle-school teacher Aurora Zimmer in Lake, Califorina, has put less emphasis on testing during online learning because it is also dawning on her, if somewhat slowly, that this is an exercise in futility. “We have no control of what is going on when you’re on a computer,” she said. “We can’t even force you to ask us to go to the bathroom. It really makes you think.”
Measures taken in the name of online cheating have spawned a new kind of comforting-and-not-at-all-draconian industry: surveillance-type companies that hire online randos to actually watch students take tests from home. I don’t know about you, but I find the idea of a faceless company hiring an online stranger to watch my 19-year-old child take a test in their bedroom very reassuring.
The internet strangers hired by these companies look for suspicious behavior (this is good because they are presumably experts in suspicious behavior), such as a student disappearing from camera view (going to the bathroom) or being slipped answers (eating chips). Some use “facial-detection” “software” to automatically penalize students who glance, however briefly, out of frame, or make “unusual movements”. This allows universities to not only be pedantic at heretofore unimaginable speeds, it allows them to outsource it as well.
Proctorio, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, said it monitored 21 million exams in 2020 world-wide, up from 6 million exams in 2019.
ProctorU, based in Hoover, Alaska, notes worrying displays of basic desires for respect, freedom, and privacy. “Some of these students must have accidentally been paying attention in their American History classes,” says one ProctorU drone with a sneer, “But we have a leg up on King George III. These latter-day George Washingtons and Patrick Henrys don’t stand a chance.”
Here are some “funny stories” about cheating to make it sound amusing and disguise the human cost and egregious civil rights violations inherent to this kind of in-home surveillance: Some of the busts include a student suspected of trying to use a drone’s camera to take images of a test to possibly share with others; another who was trying to cheat by using information on sticky notes on his dog; and a female student who sneezed and disappeared from view, to suddenly be replaced by a male wearing a blond wig, impersonating her. Dogs and crossdressing! Isn’t that funny? Now go back to bed, America.
Among the newer ways to cheat are homework auction sites, which give students a say in who does their work and at what price. Students post their assignment on a website, along with a deadline; the website acts as a marketplace for bidders who offer to do the assignment.
The bidders, who often refer to themselves as tutors, can tout degrees and other credentials. Some companies allow students to rate their work and post reviews online.
Stella Walker, a blogger and content strategist for Buy4Cheating.com, a site where students can auction out writing assignments, said the site’s terms prohibit academic fraud and plagiarism. She said she supposes cheating can happen, but it would be on a student’s conscience. “I know you’re a snitch, bonehead,” she told us.
One self-described independent tutor listed as Seymour Butz in a Craigslist ad said in an interview by text message that business was booming during the pandemic. The Craigslist ad noted services such as doing students’ math work. The tutor disavowed the label of a cheater for students, and said that the tutor helps students learn by providing written tutorials and explanations for math problems.
“No way would any student use my cheating service to avoid doing their work,” said Mr. Butz. “Boy do I ever disavow that label, you can put THAT in your article.”
Mr. Butz touted bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Pinto University in the ad, but the university said it was unable to locate such information in its records. We at The Wall Street Journal are beginning to suspect that “Seymour Butz” may be an alias.
Other popular websites that students use to get help—by submitting a question for an expert to quickly answer, or by searching a database of previous answers—include Chegg and Brainly, which said they have seen a big increase in users during the pandemic.
Chegg, a publicly held company based in Santa Clara, Calif., prides itself on a willingness to be a big squealer, and help institutions determine the identities of those who cheat. “We really like to play both sides. It gives us a deep, almost visceral pleasure, to serve as a sort of giant honeypot sting operation for entrapping helpless students,” they told us by greeting card, despite the fact that we specifically did not ask them for comment, and don’t know how they found our home address. On the basis of such scummy practices, Chegg saw total net revenue of $644.3 million in 2020, a 57% increase year over year. Subscribers hit a record 6.6 million, up 67%, and students are charged between $9.95 and $19.95 per month for the privilege of letting Chegg stab them in the back.
Mr. Penistone at WC State said Chegg helped identify the 200 students that used its website to avoid taking his exhausting final exam. Some students posted exam questions to get answers while others accessed the information, all traceable through users’ email addresses, IP addresses and the time of the access.
Another website that students were suspected of using to cheat on the exam to a lesser extent showed actual moral fiber and didn’t cooperate with the university, Mr. Penistone said bitterly.
The students were given three options: meekly accept their punishment, join Mr. Penistone in what we can only imagine must be an excruciatingly awkward Zoom call to “review the evidence”, or dispute the accusation with the Office of Student Conduct. This office designed and staffed by the university and tasked with enforcing its rules is certain to give them all a fair hearing, we are sure.
“A lot of the students responsible said, ‘It’s unfair to put us through this, because we’re going through a pandemic,’ ” Mr. Penistone said. “Fortunately these complaints fell on deaf ears. I had no choice because there was a zero-tolerance policy. I mean, I’m the one who designed the class, and the exams, and the zero-tolerance policy. But really, I had no choice.”
Even after the bust, the cheating didn’t stop. This is unsurprising, because the issue is not cheating, but unrealistic expectations in texts and exams. A close analogy might be, “Even after the floggings, the attempts to mutiny didn’t stop.” I wonder why.
“In the fall semester, of 1,000 students, I still had
attitude problems academic integrity issues with 70 or 80,” he said. “I still don’t understand the basic issues at play here — probably they have just gotten better at cheating, but fortunately I am blissfully unaware of all things happening in my classroom.”
The real tragedy of course is how this all contributes to greater societal alienation — that cheating is now being outsourced to faceless corporations, rather than being a way to build community with fellow classmates. What kind of America are we building for our children?