Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Online Legitimacy Debunked Again

By Professor Doom

     While recently I was shown that it is quite possible to theoretically have a legitimate online training program, I feel the need to reinforce that the theory is irrelevant: online coursework as delivered in practice is worthless, and no student should pay for it (except for amusement purposes).

       The Atlantic ran a very thorough piece a few years ago on just how ridiculous online education is today. Yes, I’m going to talk about an old article because it’s important to point out that not only has it been known for a long time that online coursework in higher education is a joke, but also that absolutely nothing has been done with this knowledge. From the article:

     These days, students can hire online companies to do all their coursework, from papers to final exams. Is this ethical, or even legal?

---does anyone else find it particularly sad that “is this ethical?” is actually being asked in reference to hiring someone else to do your work and pass it off as your own? Is water dry?

     The article doesn’t totally focus on online coursework per se, but on how trivially easy it is to go online and just buy whatever you want, created on demand to your specifications so that no plagiarism checker in the world will detect it. Where do they get the writers?

These services have names such as,, and claims that "70% of Students use Essay Writing service at least once [sic]" and boasts that all its writers have M.A. and Ph.D. degrees.

--although the article is over 2 years old, all four links are still valid. Obviously, obviously, obviously, those sites are still getting customers. Isn’t it interesting that the kangaroo campus courts can destroy a young man’s life in an instant but can’t do a thing about sites like these? Oh, wait, administration doesn’t care about these sites, because they improve retention.

     The ready availability of M.A. and Ph.D. holders for writing papers may well be a consequence of the impoverishment of faculty in higher education, which has reduced most professors to taking sub-minimum wage adjunct positions if they want to work in academia. These guys obviously have to make ends meet somehow, so they work to debase the system not only by adjuncting, but by selling papers to the students in other classes.

      I really want to point out, adjuncts are in no position to catch cheaters in higher education. They have no chance to know their students, so they have no way of knowing when a student submits work purchased elsewhere. Even if the adjunct caught a student cheating, administration isn’t going to remove the cheater (it cuts into growth and retention), and so the cheater will destroy the adjunct when it comes times for student evaluations. Even tenured faculty know it’s a bad idea to catch cheaters, because administration will punish the faculty.

      Even “catching” a cheater is incredibly problematic. A recent example from one of my classes, 3000 level, where two blood relatives took the class at the same time will demonstrate. The two cousins did well on the homework:

Younger cousin’s homework grade:  91.4

Older cousin’s homework grade: 91.4

      The course (not under my control) uses an online homework system where students log in from home or whatever, and do the problems. Both cousins got the exact same grade (an A) over the course of 130 or so problems. Stuff happens, although no other students in the class got that exact grade.

     Homework isn’t a big part of the course grade, the students also have to perform in-class tests, which, naturally, I’m in the class to proctor. Let’s take a look at those grades:

Younger cousin’s test grades:   40, 44, 42.
Older cousin’s test grades:  87, 91, 93

      Based on the grading scale (not under my control), the older cousin gets an A, the younger gets a D; in fact, the younger cousin is about half a point away from a C for the course. I’m not a jerk, when the grade is that close I look and see if I made a mistake somewhere.

      I take a look at the tests, and it’s clear the younger cousin doesn’t really have a clue what’s going on in the course, and is only getting decent F’s because I’m grading generously. It’s so bad that I don’t understand how he made it through the four previous courses he had to have taken before he got to mine—there is much basic knowledge and skill that he lacks. So, I’m not motivated to give him a break, as I’m pretty sure that, at the very least, he got extensive help from his older cousin for the homework, and clearly doesn’t have a remotely passable understanding of the material. I put in the final grade, which students can check.

      I get an e-mail from the younger cousin: “Hey, I see I’m just a point away from passing. Can you just give me a C and save me a few thousand bucks?” I decline the offer to help him, and mention that, gee, it’s odd that he did so well on the online homework, but terrible under controlled conditions in class.

      He e-mails back: “Yeah, I had help from my cousin, but c’mon, I don’t want to take the course again. Just give me the C, ok?”  We exchange a few more times (in fact, I’ll probably have to deal with this some more next semester), and finally I just stop responding, since it’s clear the student is simply too shameless to take “no” for an answer.

      Now, I can fail him for the low grades, but I can’t fail him for cheating. If I think a student is cheating, I have to report him to a student council, which makes such decisions. Thing is, there is nothing specific in the course syllabus that says students can’t simply have someone else do their homework for them, and so, on the advice of faculty that have been at the institution decades longer than I have, I won’t even bother: as the rules are written, it’s all but impossible for the student council to find cheating. Hmm, wonder how the rules got written that way?

     And yet, for some reason, admin wants to move more and more coursework online…

     The article, of course, is puzzled about why cheaters are not caught:

Second, how do these essays manage to slip past an instructor undetected? If most institutions knew their students were using essay-writing services, they would undoubtedly subject them to disciplinary proceedings. But the use of such services can be difficult to detect, unless the instructor makes the effort to compare the content and quality of each essay with other work the student has submitted over the course of a semester. But what if the entire semester's work has been ghostwritten?

    There’s plenty of cheating in traditional courses, but online courses are a joke: boasts, "Just let us know what the exam is about and we will find the right expert who will log in on your behalf, finish the exam within the time limit and get you a guaranteed grade for the exam itself."

--again, this link from over 2 years ago is still active. The famous Silk Road website didn’t last this long, how is it that all these sites can do it? Considering these sites get their money from the student loan scam, it seems like the government would have an interest…

     So we’re not talking about just hiring someone to write your papers, you also can hire someone to take your tests, too, and the businesses selling these services have been around for years—most businesses don’t even last a year, but these guys are clearly doing fine, every single link still active, still ready to take your order to write papers or log in and represent you in an online course.

      It’s like having websites that exclusively sell equipment to help the stealing of cars stay in business for years…wouldn’t someone wonder who the customers are? After easily establishing these sites cater to criminals, wouldn’t steps be taken to shut down the sites?

      Back to the real point for today: it’s been well known, for years, that cheating and fraud are so intrinsic to higher education that businesses facilitating cheating and fraud operate openly. It wouldn’t take much to shut this sort of stuff down (tracking IPs, quizzing students on their own work, and in-class writing are some obvious examples), but no university will make that minimal effort, even when given years to do something about it.

     It would cut into retention and growth, after all.

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