Attended Turnitin’s annual conference which this year was largely devoted to the issue of contract cheating, students paying other people to write essays on their behalf. A problem which has been growing for some time, but which came to the fore in 2014 with the MyMaster scandal in Australia. They also had demonstrations of an imminent anonymous and moderated marking tool which looked great, and a new Code Similarity project which is a development of MOSS for checking computer code for similarity.
The new product they have to help with contract cheating is called Authorship Investigation and aims to try and detect cheating by comparing work submitted by a given student over a period of time, analysing such things as word and punctuation usage, richness of vocabulary, and document metadata – looking for obvious things such as an unusual author or editing time. The hands-on demonstration was quite good, especially for software still in beta and not due for release until next year. A number of us at the demonstration raised the same type of concerns though. For example, when I’m writing work I create a new document for every draft, and therefore the final file that I actually submit would show a same day creation date and very little editing time, both things that would be flagged up by Authorship Investigation as suspicious.
Also demonstrated was just how easy it is to get assignments from essay mills, and how predatory they are. A funny anecdote was about someone who was researching contract cheating. They started an online chat with someone from an essay mill site, who then proceeded to offer their services to write the paper for them!
This is a hard problem Turnitin are trying to solve, much harder than identifying blocks of text which have been copied and pasted from elsewhere, and most of us at the demonstration were a little skeptical about their approach. Of course, Turnitin is a technology company and they have devised a technological solution (to sell), when a better solution is arguably a pedagogic one, designing out the ability for students to outsource assessment work by moving away from essays and using approaches such as face-to-face presentations. Knowing your students and their work personally is also likely to be better than relying on algorithms, but of course this is much easier with smaller cohorts.
There was also very little discussion about the context of this, and what has caused the issue to arise. In most of the West we have commodified tertiary education, turning it into just another product that’s available for anyone who can afford it, so is it any wonder that those with the means take the next step? Nevertheless, this is the world we find ourselves in and essay mills aren’t going to go away. Calls to legislate against them, as worthy as that may be, will have the same problems as trying to prohibit any online content in that it can only apply to UK based companies, and while technological solutions may help in the short term, they are no panacea as methods to circumvent them will soon appear in what is an ever escalating arms race.