190. Academic Integrity

The global pandemic resulted in a dramatic increase in online instruction. This was accompanied by an expansion of the use of online services that, in return for a fee, provide students with solutions to assignments and exams . In this episode, James M. Pitarresi joins us to discuss strategies that faculty can use to preserve academic integrity in their online courses.

James is a Vice Provost for Online and Innovative Education and the Executive Director of the Center for Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He is also a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Binghamton.



John: The global pandemic resulted in a dramatic increase in online instruction. This was accompanied by an expansion of the use
of online services that, in return for a fee, provide students with solutions to assignments and exams. In this episode, we examine strategies that faculty can use to preserve academic integrity in their online courses.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.


John: Our guest today is James M. Pitarresi. James is a Vice Provost for Online and Innovative Education and the Executive Director of the Center for Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Binghamton. He is also a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Binghamton. Welcome, James.

James: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for bringing me on board.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are… James, are you drinking tea?

James: I had my cup of tea. I drink Barry’s Irish tea with a little bit of sugar and milk, and I’ve already had it today.

John: And I am drinking Spring Cherry Green tea.

Rebecca: And I’ve got a near neighbor with my Scottish afternoon breakfast.

James: Oh, nice.

Rebecca: …to James, not to John. [LAUGHTER]

John: Yeah, I’m not sure where this one comes from. It’s a Republic of Tea tea.

James: Well, I have to try the Scottish Breakfast. I’ve had the English Breakfast tea.

Rebecca: This one’s a Scottish afternoon, and there’s a morning as well, but I actually prefer the afternoon. It’s a little smoother or something.

James: Ok, Yeah, I’ll look for it.

John: And for many episodes, English afternoon was the preferred which is a little bit harder to find. Well, it’s probably comparable to the Scottish afternoon in terms of ease of locating,

Rebecca: You got to know where to look, John, you got to know where to look.

John: Well, we actually have six packs of twenty in the office where they’ve been sitting since last February when they came in.

Rebecca: We have to hurry up and drink those up.

John: So the global pandemic, which began last March, caused many faculty to shift from face-to-face instruction to online instruction, many for the first time. And we’ve seen a tremendous shift of students from face-to-face to online instruction. And that seems to have been accompanied by a fairly dramatic expansion in the use of online services that facilitate academic dishonesty. And a few years ago, at least on our campus, much of that seemed to be taking place using Course Hero. In the last couple years, much of the expansion seems to have been from Chegg. I saw a statistic recently that between April and August of 2020, the number of student uploads or questions to Chegg approximately doubled, and I think that expansion has continued since then. Why are the sites so popular?

James: Yeah, John, great summary of the challenges we face right now. I’ve done a lot of interviewing with students. And actually I stumbled into this in, I think it was June of 2019, at the American Society of Engineering Education annual conference, I think it was in Tampa. And I was doing one of the keynote breakfast things that are sponsored, McGraw Hill was sponsoring it. And we were talking about the future of educational materials. And the session was well attended by both faculty and students. We had a great panel and I was emceeing it. And the conversation came up about Chegg. Now this is pre-pandemic, and the question came up about Chegg. Many of the faculty hadn’t heard of it. All the students had heard of it. And it was an incredible conversation and eye opener. And what came out of that hour and a half meeting was, for me anyways, “Well, why were students using these type of websites?” …and there are many out there, I think Chegg is probably the leading one right now. And it was fascinating, having the conversation with the students. Of course, fast forward to the pandemic, and this all exploded. But what I’ve discovered, in having both focus groups and individual conversations with students from across the country, is that there seems to be a sense that students don’t want to leave points on the table. So if homework is worth 20%, or 25%, or 50%, they’re going to get all of those points if they can, and most students work hard to try to figure it out. But if they’re stuck, they’re not going to leave those points on the table, they’re going to go someplace to get help. And in the past, that might have been the person living in the dorm down the hall, or maybe you went to tutoring or some other source to get help. But these online sites are a couple mouse clicks away. And so the barrier to entry is so low, that if you’re struggling with a demanding curriculum and other things going on, the temptation is so great. And so what I found, in talking to students using these websites, is one of two general flavors. One was the student that was, “I’m not going to leave points on the table,” and frankly, blurring the line between academic dishonesty and trying to actually learn, and that’s sad. And we’ll probably get into that in a little bit in this conversation. The other group of students were students that were really trying to use these sites to learn, they were stuck on something, they couldn’t get past it. They’d submit, they’d take a look or search around. And to a large extent, they really want to learn. The pandemic came, everybody shifted online, and they took a look around and said, “Well, wait a minute here, this person’s cheating. That person’s cheating. I’m the one not cheating, I’m going to get the low grade because I’m really trying to do well, I’m not a cheat.” I heard this over and over again, “I’m not a cheat, but I know everyone in the class is cheating, and I’m not going to be the one getting a B, when they’re getting an A.” And so it became this crazy dynamic of a mix of “I’m not going to leave points on the table,” and “I’ll be darned everyone else is cheating.” And the barrier to entry is so incredibly low that the students who would never cheat, it’s a mouse click away. Oh, there’s the answer. Yeah, I knew that, hand it in, Sorry, long answer, John, but that sort of summarizes my exposure to it.

John: I actually had a conversation with a student just a few weeks ago that mirrors that exact discussion. Her response when we talked about this is she should have had more faith in her own ability, but she was using it as a crutch because she wasn’t that confident, so she was using this in every one of her courses. And I was just the person who happened to catch her doing it.

Rebecca: Academic dishonesty has been an issue for a very long time. But the pandemic has definitely put a spotlight on, especially this kind of digital version of academic dishonesty, even though that same mouse click was there a year or two ago, and these platforms definitely had traffic, they seem to have increased during the pandemic. Can you talk a little bit about the role of the pandemic in this particular issue?

James: Rebecca, you’re absolutely right. Unfortunately, cheating has been going on for a long time. And, usually, the way most professors adjust to that is, let’s say the homework or something might only be worth 10,15, 20%. It’s not particularly high stakes. It’s designed to be formative anyways. It’s the exams. And so in the past, they were face to face. And while young people tend to be very innovative and brilliant in solutions to circumventing academic honesty, in general, it was very hard to do. The pandemic rolls in. And now, exams are online. So we’re in a situation where the barrier to entry to cheating on an exam when it was face to face was pretty gosh darn high. Now, it’s extremely low, because you’re at home, you’re sitting in your bedroom or whatever, at the kitchen table, you’re taking an online test. Many faculty, many universities don’t use a proctoring service, we can talk a little bit about those, they’re typically a cost added, usually to the student, if they become very expensive to do institutionally. And quite frankly, I have a lot of experience that those systems don’t work, they don’t deter cheating, it’s pretty easy to cheat while these systems are being used. And I’ve unfortunately been involved with faculty that I’ve talked to, from my institution and other institutions where cheating has occurred during the exam while it was being video monitored. So in the arms race of trying to prevent cheating in the online world, we as instructors have a tendency to be a step behind. But you’re right, Rebecca, the pandemic shifted us online, including the big assessments, the big summative assessments, the exams, and we struggled with how to do it. Frankly, it was a little bit of lack of imagination on our part, and maybe an unwillingness or not recognizing that this change was afoot. The faculty that I’ve talked to that have modified their exam processes, have had some success. And interestingly enough faculty who have had upfront discussions with their students about academic honesty, and integrity, and setting standards, and a North star for yourself in terms of what your behavior is, they’ve had success in deterring cheating and academic dishonesty. But yeah, the pandemic brought it on, and it was the shift to online, plain and simple.

John: One of the things I think many teaching centers have been advocating for years is to use more online quizzing that’s automated to take some of the pressure off professors, and also to give students lots of formative assessment, as you’ve suggested, much of which is often done as a low-stakes summative assessment too, where students have multiple attempts. And so many faculty have been routinely creating these large test banks and updating them, but they pretty much all appear online pretty quickly. And the benefits of that, in many classes, have effectively disappeared. What can faculty do, without creating thousands of questions every semester, to get around this issue, to give students the benefits of that low-stakes or no-stakes formative assessment, while still making sure that students are actually learning from and ar not just looking things up on one of the services?

Rebecca: John, are you just looking for personal advice?

James: Chances are, it’s out there, John, I’m sorry to say, but hopefully…

John: I actually have been checking and I have done a few things that make it more difficult. But I’ve also been writing hundreds of new questions every week this semester.

James: Yeah, John, that’s part of the challenge is not only is it a shift in thinking for instructors, but it’s a shift in workload. So one approach is you did the work upfront, you’re writing hundreds of new questions with subtle changes, perhaps. And so it makes it very difficult to keep up with all those. The backside is to have more open-ended problems, but then your grading, so your extra work is on the backend. Part of this is having the conversation with the students, an honest conversation about their learning, connecting what you’re doing in the class, what you’re doing with the subject material to the issues that they’re going to face, perhaps in other courses, perhaps in their life and their career choice… so just an adult conversation, this is why it’s important for you to learn that, and I’ve come up with these low-stakes tests, so you can see where you’re at. And yeah, you can cheat on it. If that’s going to be your approach, then I don’t agree with that, and I think it’s eventually going to get you in trouble. So one approach, John is, yeah, you just do it, you have that conversation, and you say, “Look, it’s like taking your temperature to see if you have a fever. Just go and check. You want to know, if you have a fever, you want to know if you really have this material. I think you got to combine that when you get away from the frequent formative testing… the mantra, frequent formative assessment… when you get away from that, and you’re kind of saying, “Okay, here’s the next level test. This is a summative assessment, I need to know where you’re at with it.” That’s where the challenge is at right now, because the test banks have all been widely distributed. And unless you’re a glutton for punishment, and can write hundreds of questions, it’s going to be a real challenge. We’ve had some luck with using Gradescope. John, Rebecca, have you guys used Gradescope?

John: I have not. I know some colleagues who have, although not on our campus that I’m aware of.

James: We’ve had some, I would say modest success with it. It’s a tool that I think works best in a face-to-face type of exam, but you can do it in an online format. It helps speed up the grading process, it leverages artificial intelligence. There are some technical issues and glitches and so forth. But folks in chemistry and math have been experimenting with it with very good results. And one of the things it does is it can reduce the grading time. And that’s been the big pushback from my colleagues is “I’ll make open-ended problems, but then their grading is so hard.” One thing I did, and again, mechanical engineering, so I’ve got an advantage in that I can ask design-type questions. And what I have done in the past… this is pre-pandemic… is I would assign each student in the class slightly different parameters for a design problem. And then I was able, using some software (I think I used Mathematica or MATLAB, I don’t remember), I was able to run all the different variables and come up with approximately what their solution should look like. And so I split the difference, there was a little bit of upfront work in setting it up and a little bit of extra grading. But here’s the thing, the students loved it. And not because it was a design problem… I would say they like design problems. Here’s the insight. They loved it because they could work together, but they all had their own set of parameters that they had to do on their own. So they were like, “Oh, this is great. We got together, four or five of us got together and talked through it and explained it to each other.” But then everyone had to sit down, and kind of run the numbers for themselves. And they all diverged to slightly different solutions. That was a big insight for me. It would be interesting. I mean, I don’t know how you’d expand that to other disciplines. It would be interesting to go back and try that some more and see if that sort of assessment would get around all this. Now that said, could someone post their specific parameters on Chegg and get the answer? Yeah, unfortunately, the answer might be yes, John.

John: And in fact, I did that with my first econometrics exam when we moved online. I created seven variants of each of seven questions for a class of about 30 students, and nearly all the questions ended up online within about an hour of the test. And the first appearance was within 15 minutes of the test opening. So yeah, they can and they get a custom solution that can then be used by others. And for most of them five or six of the variants ended up appearing online very quickly.

James: Yeah, I wish we had a solution. Because if the three of us had the solution to it, we’d be going up for the initial public offering and starting up our company. But yeah, part of it is student behavior, and helping them understand what’s at stake about their learning. Part of it is changing our behavior as instructors. And while I understand sites like Chegg have introduced, I think it;s called honor shields, and so forth, the colleagues that I’ve talked to said it’s not very effective, they haven’t been happy with it. So yeah, this is a very vexing problem. And one that I don’t see a clear solution to in the future, I will say there was a math professor with a small seminar type class, and he just had oral Zoom exams with each student. He just set up a time and asked them. And the same professor, in his larger class, told students, “I might randomly contact you to explain how you solve a problem on a test.” And I think the fear of that alone probably drove students to study. [LAUGHTER] But yeah, you hate to resort to techniques like that. But there it is.

Rebecca: Especially when the platform’s themselves, like Chegg, they’re well designed for the behavior they want to occur. They’re designed in a way that rewards people uploading content, and so it’s designed in a way to be kind of effective at getting students to upload content because they want content.

James: Yep, exactly.

John: That’s actually the Course Hero model where you get free subscriptions if you upload a certain amount of graded material. And then you get access to materials that other students post. With Chegg, there’s a monthly fee, which I know, because I have to pay it just to keep track of all the cheating that’s taking place in my classes, which is really troubling. But it does have a nice interface, which is fairly similar to the interface that Netflix and similar services use. “If you like this problem, you will also like this problem.” And, in general, you can trace your way through and find many other questions from any given assessment that you posted

Rebecca: …referrals and recommendations. It’s amazing.

James: This is the Amazon model. John, one of the things that I found was interesting in talking to students who use Chegg is it recommends another problem. A number of students said that they enjoyed that, because while they saw the solution and everything, they felt that they were getting more experience with different types of problems, and they like that. But what was really interesting is when I would interview students and talk about their use of Chegg, one of the things that kept coming up, over and over again, is they liked the way, with certain types of problems in Chegg, that there could be hints. There are a whole spectrum of solutions available there. But the ones that are sort of curated, they thought were done very well, every step was explained, there was no “Oh, and it can be shown” and “then completing the algebra you get”… they showed all the steps. And some problems have hints, and you can choose to uncover the hints. And many of the students said they loved that. It was in plain language, and it showed all the steps. And maybe we should take a lesson from that when we put together course materials and study guides for our students, maybe that would be more beneficial for the students, would help them work their way through it. But I thought that was an interesting insight, that those were key aspects. Here’s another aspect, there’s not a lot of video content on Chegg. Now part of it is because “I just need to copy the answer and hand this homework in,” [LAUGHTER] but the students said, “Yeah, they didn’t really care about the video content, they were happy to read through the sort of solution walkthroughs.” And that’s interesting, because that’s sort of the opposite of YouTube, where it’s all video. And so the different learning methods and styles and approaches I thought was interesting. I just wish they didn’t cheat. [LAUGHTER]]

Rebecca: I think taking a lesson from some of those design aspects is important too. A lot of the things that students complain about is the learning management system and what that looks like and feels like or, for example, the problem sets that you’re talking about and wanting it to be in plain language rather than in language that maybe seems too difficult, or it’s not the right level of challenge. All of those things are things that could help the student maybe not want to leave your course and go somewhere else if it was built in. But it all requires a lot of time and resources and materials. And many of us don’t have that available to us with workloads expanding and especially during the pandemic having to turn around things quickly to shift gears,

James: Rebecca, you’re right, the massive shift from face to face to online, the anxiety, especially in the early days over this pandemic, and I don’t think the anxiety has gone down at all. But all that and the extra workload of learning to transition online, and figuring all this out. That’s been a consistent challenge during this whole period, that crazy shift in workload. And it’s been a challenge for all of us. It’s been a challenge for the students, certainly the types of students we’re talking about, in general, are students who went to college, they went to a residential experience. And all of a sudden we told them, [LAUGHTER] “Well, no, you’re actually attending an online institution at this point.” And Rebecca and John, I did want to point out, there was another interesting insight. I was interviewing some students on our campus, and then when I interviewed students from other universities, I was able to find similar things. And here’s what a student said to me, and I won’t use names, but they said, “Oh, in Professor X’s class, we never use Chegg.” Well, why not? “We didn’t have to. Her lectures were great. She explained everything. The homework was tied in, it made sense. And she gave us all her old exams. And she said, ‘Oh, you’re gonna know this for the exam.’” We had her old exams, and we’re like, “Oh my gosh, she’s right. We need to know this for the exam.“ And there was good support and tutorial services. There was great support. This is a quote, one student said “Chegg, Chegg who?” …obviously being a joker about it. But I thought that was fascinating, that when the course is well designed, when the material is presented in a clear way that’s student centered, when the students clearly understand how they’re going to be assessed, they know there isn’t going to be the trick problem to separate the stratospheric A from everybody else, they were like, “Yeah, we don’t need Chegg. We have everything we need from the professor and the student support services.” And when I asked students from other universities, I said, “Well, tell me about a course that you didn’t use Chegg.” And pretty much, I’d say well over half of them had “Oh, yeah, in organic chemistry, in thermodynamics, yeah, I had a great professor.” So there’s something in there that we need to learn as instructors. But that said, another quote from the same students who did use Chegg in another class, when I said “It’s academic dishonesty, you can be expelled.” And he said, “80% of the class is using it, they gonna expel all of us?” That’s an interesting perspective from a student. So yeah, but talking to students and getting their views on this has been tremendously fascinating. And it’s really helped inform a lot of the advice I give my colleagues about how to make the best of this situation. But it’s a challenge.

John: And I suspect the number of classes where it’s not being used has probably declined quite a bit, because once they’re paying that monthly fee, and now Chegg has a really nice mobile app, where you just take a picture of a problem on the screen, it uploads it, and the response comes back generally in 15 to 20 minutes, the marginal cost of engaging it in additional classes has become a lot lower for those students who might have considered it but didn’t think it was worthwhile before.

James: Yeah, the barrier to entry is now at ground level, other than the fee of $15, or whatever it is. It would be nice to engage with Chegg and other platforms. We need the students to learn this material. This is important. Let’s work together. I mean, the honor shield, okay, if it’s not working, why isn’t it working? Let’s figure out why it isn’t working on our end, working with students on academic honesty, and having a North star and having their own internal what’s right and what’s wrong, and helping young people build that set of skills and beliefs about themselves. You mentioned earlier that the young woman, she didn’t have the confidence in herself to be able to just do it. And part of it might be down the road, do departments and schools and universities and so forth, make a big fuss out of this? Is there legal action in the future? This is interesting. Where is this gonna go? I think the article in Forbes, which was very enlightening, they talked about the valuation of the company in the billions. And so if you take a very crass look at this, you got a multi billion dollar company based on cheating. That’s a hard swipe, and so forth. But let’s have a conversation.

John: And it’s basically all copyright infringement of textbook publishers’ content and faculty members’ content. So basically, they’re making millions, essentially from encouraging academic dishonesty and from infringing on everybody’s copyright. So it wouldn’t really be all that difficult, I would think, although copyright law with digital materials is a little bit tricky, because we do have the DMCA out there. And I know Chegg in particular, and I think Course Hero as well, is pretty good at responding to DMCA takedown requests, because I’ve sent dozens of them there just in the past semester, and quite a few over the last couple of years. And Chegg is actually also very good in providing faculty with information on the login ID that students use. Up until last year, in my experience at least, students were mostly using their actual college email address. Now they’ve tended to switch it a bit where they’ve created fake Gmail accounts, but they’re still logging in from the same IP address that they’re using when they submit their exams, which makes it really easy to do a look up between the exam and the person contributing the material. So there are ways of enforcing this. And if more faculty crack down on it, perhaps, it might deter a bit more of this activity. But there’s millions being made, as you said, and it might be nice if some of the publishers would work together to try to take back their ownership of the material they’ve paid to create.

James: I don’t know copyright law. But some of the problems I’ve looked at, where they were explained in more detail, whoever wrote that up, sort of wrote it up independent, they did not photocopy the instructors manual, the solution manual, they worked it out themselves. And truly I do not know what the copyright law is there.

John: The solutions, I think, would not be violations to copyright. But the photocopies of the problems and the test questions and so forth would be a violation of copyright.

James: That’s right, when we make up exams and so forth. But I mean, I’ve talked to faculty who had the exam, and had on the exam, “do not upload to Chegg,” [LAUGHTER] and it appeared, as you said, John, within 15, 20 minutes, and in those cases, it’s pretty easy to prosecute. Chegg will, as long as you go through the official academic honesty policy on campus, they’ll provide information, and that gets ugly really fast for the student. And here’s the other issue, John and Rebecca, I’ve pursued academic dishonesty cases, not involving Chegg, and it is work, it’s effort, it’s stress, and then you get the emails from the student: “You’re ruining my life” and all this kind of stuff. And It can be like, “Oh, boy, wouldn’t have been so much better if we had this conversation and you said, ‘Hey, Professor, I’m really struggling, can you give me some extra help or help me find a tutor.’” Here at Binghamton University, and I assume at many universities, students pay various comprehensive fees. tutoring is free, just go and sign up for tutoring, you’ve already paid a comprehensive fee that covers it. And I make that pitch to the first-year students all the time and say,” You’ve already paid for this, go and use it.” But yeah, I mean, think of the effort it takes for you to then go through all this work and crosswalk an IP address to this and that, I mean, that’s part of the equation we talked about, the time shift, you have to spend time on front creating assessments, on the back end grading it, and all through the process, pursuing it legally, a real challenge.

Rebecca: I think sometimes the argument, too, for students about being honest works a little better when it’s in their major, because there’s a slightly better sell of like a direct impact of “this skill set is really going to get you when you start that job and you can’t do the thing.” But we have to work on our arguments for the courses that might be in general education and things and help students recognize how those are valuable as well out in the workforce. Because I think sometimes that argument can be really compelling for students, but we have to be ready to help make it and help them want to be authentic in what they’re doing so that they can have success.

James: Absolutely. And you’re right. When I talked to students, certainly, for the courses outside of their major, they were much more willing to just survive the course, they really didn’t care. And, again, what lesson can we learn from that? Why are students feeling that way? Why are they saying that? Are those courses not connected? Or did we just not make the connection? We didn’t show them, “Oh, yes, that’s important, that gen ed is really much more important.” I’d argue, certainly in the STEM fields, as so many STEM degrees are being offered worldwide, as technology allows for so many of the things that used to require a person, now can be done by AI, that it’s our ability to work in teams, our ability to communicate, its ethics, and how do you tackle big challenging problems? I might be a mechanical engineer, I bring that background, other people bring other backgrounds and experiences. And that, what a great way to tie in general education courses to the bigger picture. Are we making that argument? Are we helping students make those connections? So, something to think about. I don’t have any answers, guys, so I’ll have to stay tuned to your podcast as you bring smarter people in to say, “Oh, well, when James said that, I have the solution.” [LAUGHTER]

John: Are there some other approaches that faculty could use in place of more traditional exams to eliminate some of the incentives and the possibility for this type of academic integrity concern?

James: Sure, there are, and they’re are more time consuming. So I’m going to be honest with myself, it’s a little easier to have 10 multiple choice questions in mechanical engineering on an exam, a little bit of a testbank, a little bit of taken from the homework, taken from my notes, super easy to grade. If you got 100 plus students, you can grade that pretty quick or you bubble source it. And I justify it, because the licensing exam is multiple choice. Well, it’s okay. It’s okay. I think we got to go back and say, “Well, maybe a judicious blend of some multiple choice questions.” Hey, you know what? The licensing exam is multiple choice. And sometimes you just got to get the right answer. With longer answer prompts that ask them to evaluate something, that’s the approach I use, and it weighs heavily on the back end. The grading is now something that you spend the weekend with a stack of papers,going through them. And you know, you guys know how that is, you can’t start grading a problem and stop halfway because you lose it in your head, right? You got the rubric in front of you. But still, you get a certain “Ok, I took a point off for that, yeah.” And so you got to sit and do that whole problem. And that’s for a lot of folks, I’ll just say, for me, that’s a shift in doing things as we shift to online. I hope that when we go back to face to face, and let’s hope it’s this fall, that we don’t forget some of these lessons, that we really should be designing better assessments that really challenge what the students know. My argument is, if you can google on it, and it’s three mouse clicks away, it’s probably not worthy of testing them on it. And the students are telling you that by saying I’m just gonna copy it. So I don’t have great solutions. I know some of the learning management systems, you can put problems in there, they’ll mix up the order, they’re timed, you can’t go back. But, the only problem I have with that is what is it we’re really testing? The time thing just puts a lot of anxiety and pressure on people and I’m not a good one under those conditions. And you know, John, I’m a “Oh shoot on problem two, wait a minute. Yeah, I did. Oh, I did that. I want to go back to problem two. I just remembered, cause in problem six, there was something similar.” You can’t do it. So yeah, there are things we do out there. But they’re not getting at the heart of what we want. And that is students to learn this material and for us to assess it in a fair and reasonable way, and help the students connect all this for whatever goals they have in their lives. What are you trying to do? Why are you in college? What’s your goal? Let’s connect what we’re doing to that goal. So Chegg’s not in front of that, that’s a deeply philosophical question for another podcast. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I think combined with that, James, depending on your class size, open pedagogy or authentic assessments are also options, but it has to be the right kind of course, with the right kind of content, and the right kind of class size…

James: Yeah.

Rebecca: …for those things to all work in the mix.

James: Yeah, Rebecca, right now I’m teaching an innovation class with 10 students. [LAUGHTER] It is an absolute joy. It’s 10 motivated students, we’re using a platform called mural, which is an online collaborative platform. And so when the homework is due, I can actually go into Mural and see them doing the homework and they see each other’s homework. It’s like, yeah, we’re all going to collaborate on this. And so they can actually look and see what other people are putting in. And I mix it up, I randomize some stuff. So they have to do the reading and then they have to do parts. But, the students love it. And believe me, it’s almost like a bespoke education. This is like hand crafted somewhere between there and I used to teach some of the big sophomore engineering classes with 175 students, and I know some of your listeners who are teaching even bigger classes. That becomes almost industrial in scale. And the ability to give authentic assessments becomes very, very difficult. And until we get those AI engines up… and I’ll tell you what, when they get to the level of being able to do that. we’re all out of a job…. [LAUGHTER] or we better redefine what it is we do as educators.

Rebecca: I think what you’re pointing out, though, James, in some ways is that it tends to be those lower level classes that are bigger, those introductory classes. And so although they might get away with it, in those lower classes, they may not be thinking about the long-term game there.[LAUGHTER]

James: Yeah.

Rebecca: …because those are skills and things that they need in those upper-level classes, especially in their major, it’ll come back to get them in a way that if they don’t take an upper- level class in something else, they might not experience the same kind of consequences. But even reminding students of that, particular long-term consequences of their choices, could be useful.

James: That’s excellent. Rebecca. And as we talked earlier on, I mentioned some of the strategies that seems to work was faculty instructors talking about this, just having a very frank conversation. “Yeah, I know, all these platforms exist. Let’s talk about it. Here’s what I’m trying to do in this class.” Rebecca, I don’t think, in general, we do a great job at connecting the courses across the curriculum. And so I’m teaching my course and I do my thing. And then I hand the students off over the fence. “There you go, go take the next course,” unless we’re doing kind of self studies within our disciplines. “Hey, you know what, I teach this basic thing here at the sophomore level, and you don’t use it till last semester senior year, when does the student practice that thing?” And now we’re expecting them to pull that out of their hat and be experts at it? Why don’t we change things so that they’re constantly using it? And these are great conversations to have… a good hard look, a deep dive into how we build curriculum, helping students connect it, helping connect it to the progress they’re trying to make in their lives. Why are you studying mechanical engineering? What do you want to do with that? Let’s connect those dots through the program, so you can see where things are connected. But as long as the barrier to entry to online cheating is low, [LAUGHTER] but we got an uphill fight.

John: I have tried using some open pedagogy projects, including student-created podcasts and videos created by students, but it’s so much more work evaluating that, that it just doesn’t scale very well. I have been using them in my classes of up to 50 in my online class, but I have not yet committed to doing that in a class of 400, which I normally teach in person… last fall I taught synchronously online.

James: Wow. Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And what are the recurrent themes here? Part of it is: let’s have conversations with students, let’s rethink formative and summative assessments, are there solutions at different scales that make sense? The real challenge, Rebecca, you’re absolutely right, is the big introductory sort of classes where we’ve become used to having sometimes hundreds, if not more, students in the class, these pools of multiple choice questions that make it, and I’m using the phrase industrial and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense at all, but it’s this ability to be able to expose students to a chemistry curriculum or mechanical engineering curriculum at scale in a very efficient way. [LAUGHTER] I mean, It’s kind of what STEM people do: how do we make this more efficient? And then a big change comes, a huge disruption, and we have to scramble. And so, I don’t see a way around the fact that this is going to be a lot of extra work. And if this were a long term shift, then absolutely, I think we’d be talking about how we restructure higher education in general and different departments and disciplines. I think because it’s short term, the concern I have is, we are going to forget all this, we’re going to wipe our hands of it and go back to face to face and go back to the old way, and not address some of the structural challenges that we’ve uncovered here: helping students understand why it’s important, and “oh, by the way, if the courses are disjointed, that’s on us, go fix that, put some effort into that, and have those conversations with the students.” That’s one of the things I always think about is what is it going to look like a year from now. And I’m concerned that we’re going to miss learning the lessons, we’re going to forget to apply these lessons, when we get back to our old ways, because we’re used to them. “I’ve got my research, my scholarship, my teaching, I’ve got it all balanced just right. I’ve been doing this for a long time, don’t make me change.” But we might have to in order to really help the students be successful. And one thing I always remember is this generation of students is going to be taking care of me when I’m old, so I want them to be good decision makers, [LAUGHTER] and have a good strong set of ethics and a moral compass. So they’re like, “oh, yeah, we have to look at society in a bigger sense.”

Rebecca: That keeps it in perspective, I think, James. [LAUGHTER]

James: Yeah, that’s right. It’s like, “Make sure I’m nice, because when I’m retired, these will be the wage earners. So I want to make sure that they keep the wheels of the economy turning and keep healthcare going and all the things we rely on, that we became painfully aware of during this pandemic, and how thin some of those threads were, how tenuous some of those systems were and are.” So really, it’s amazing how this pandemic has impacted absolutely every aspect of our lives. And we’re talking about some very specific things here. But there’s deep stuff going on here. And this is an opportunity for us to rethink how we move forward.

Rebecca: Especially because it’s easy to go back to what we had or to desire that, especially when we feel potentially burnt out with the workload and things of shifting, or just even having to have the difficult conversations with colleagues about really needing to do significant change when it’s really hard work that needs to be done.

James: Yeah.

Rebecca: So it’s easy to want to avoid it. [LAUGHTER]

James: Yeah, and I’m assuming this is a true statement. But, as a mechanical engineering professor, my training was watching my mechanical engineering professors, right? And their training was watching their professors. And so we teach the way we were taught unless we pause and take a look at the science and research and scholarship in teaching and learning, and then try to apply that. And yeah, Rebecca, you’re right, it’s work. And when you upset that balance, what’s going to happen here? And what does this mean for the future of how we do things? It would be great to not have these massive classes where you could interact with students more directly. I don’t know that that would solve the cheating problem. My students aren’t cheating in my class, there’s only 10 of them, I know them extremely well, they’re very motivated and interested, and they see where it’s connected. So how do you do that at scale and how do you do that across the curriculum?

John: On a more positive note, many faculty who had not been very involved in professional development, who had not reflected on their teaching, because they were just doing it the same way they always had, were suddenly forced to confront some new realities, and they’ve learned a lot during the past year. And I’m hoping that much of what people have learned will not be forgotten as we move past the pandemic.

James: Yeah, I agree. And I’ve been, as I’m sure you’ve seen, I’ve been just blown away by my colleagues, the huge shift, the willingness to just jump on board, to try new technology, to experiment with things and get feedback. Hey, I tried this and it really works great. And then we’ve been able to get that in the hands of other people. It was incredible to see and you’re absolutely right. So let’s pull these good pieces and bring them back. I can see myself now, even when we go face to face, just being more than happy if a student wants to Zoom with me for 15 minutes, and it’s in the evening, I could set up two evenings a week, set up an hour to do that. Like, before, I would have been: “When I get home, I’m toast. I just want to maybe catch up on my reading, catch up on my emails,” I could see that changing. And John and Rebecca, one of the things I have done, is for my entire staff, I have a weekly Zoom town hall where they can ask any questions, I give them updates. It’s fantastic. Folks really like it. And then I run a scholarship program and I just have… every two weeks, I set up a time chunk of time, vast majority of them show up, and we just chat, like, “How are things going?” And I didn’t do that. I mean, I certainly didn’t do it on Zoom before. And I might see individuals now and then, but it made me much more accessible. But in a way that was acceptable. It’s like, “Oh, I’m used to Zoom now, yeah, I don’t mind sitting in my attic studio at home and setting up a 45-minute Zoom and meeting with some students or some colleagues. So what a cool thing to be that accessible and be comfortable with it, within, obviously, within limits, and so forth. That’s a cool thing that I want to continue. A lesson we learned is that when we shifted to online, one thing became apparent right away, is there were a lot of students in socio-economic situations, they didn’t have a laptop, they didn’t have a camera, they didn’t have headphones, they didn’t have internet. And this pandemic has widened the gap to a very uncomfortable level. And so paying attention to that. And what we did at Binghamton is SUNYgave us laptops, we went out and bought a bunch of laptops, we bought mobile MiFi hotspots, 250 of them. You don’t even want to know what my monthly bill is for those… unlimited data. But we just did it. We just did it and sent it out. The other thing is we did a phone campaign just to reach out to students. And we recruited faculty and staff. And it was incredible, just to have a conversation with students. They were like, “Hey,” the overwhelming comment back was “Wow, like, thanks for contacting me.” “Yeah, I’m doing okay,” or “No, I’m not doing okay, I’ve got to take care of my younger brother and sister, my mom is working as a nurse, and it’s absolute chaos here.” So those are two things we learned in the pandemic that I hope we pay attention to, because there are students for with having all this fancy technology, that doesn’t exist. They’re in school, because there’s a computer lab and they don’t own this stuff, they don’t have it. And then the other is just reaching out to students, being a human, you know, “Hey, how’s it going?: …incredible, how powerful that is.

John: This has all become much more visible for faculty as a result of the pandemic. Those inequities were always there, but they were hidden. And now that faculty see that, it may also provide a richer appreciation of the inequities that students face as they were reaching the college level. And that’s something, as we move into the fall, that I think we’re going to see magnified because most students completed most of the last academic year remote, and some students were in well-funded school district with many resources, and all of the students and the faculty had good equipment. And in other schools, they did not have that sort of environment and much less learning occurred. So, we’re going to be faced with a student body that’s going to be experiencing greater inequities as they arrive on our campus in the fall. And I think that’s something that we all have to be prepared for.

James: John, you’re absolutely right, and well said. I think it’s always been there, and now there’s much more awareness. And I think that is something we cannot forget. And the second part of that is the students coming in… we’ve had some conversations with school districts, principals, high school principals, so forth, superintendents, and what we’re hearing is exactly what you said. It’s all over the map in terms of what that academic experience is. We know that the incoming first-year students had a pretty crazy year and a half, a lot of school districts had a “do no harm” policy. So John, if my average in your class was an 87, it didn’t matter. I couldn’t get worse than an 87. So am I motivated to work harder? Or am I going: “and thank you, I just got to take it easy.” And so I may not have learned all that material. So we have that. We have principals telling us that people have moved because of the pandemic, they had to move in with relatives. So the student isn’t showing up, they go to the house, they don’t even live there anymore. Like, where are they? So that’s a challenge. So if you think about the social aspects at home, you think about the emotional growth aspects, you think about the academic aspects, and then you add in standard test optional. The cohort of students coming in is potentially very different in a lot of ways. And we’re going to have to look at how we support them. It’s not a deficit model on their part. It’s a deficit model on our part, too, as instructors. So what are our deficits? And how do we change and modify to meet the students at a place where they can be successful? And I think that’s very important. But John, here’s the thing that was most sobering. One principal told us that it’s not just the seniors, it’s the juniors. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, so not only did the first-year’s propagate through the system, right behind them is the juniors who had a wacky…” and here’s what one principal said: “The biggest failure rate they’re seeing is in the high school sophomores.” This is a problem that isn’t going away. This is going to wash up onto the shores of higher education and if we’re not ready for it, we’re going to be in for a heck of a shock. And quite frankly, those students are going to be in for a shock. So we’ve got to figure out, what do we need to do as institutions of higher learning? And how can we best support students to be successful? No one goes to college to flunk out. They’re going because they’re trying to make progress. They’re trying to make progress in their life. Okay. How do we help them? Oh, yeah, deep and profound stuff, John and Rebecca, the effects of this are going to be with us for years to come.

Rebecca: …at least 13 years, I think, K-12. [LAUGHTER]

James: Oh yeah, right?

John: The preschoolers might have gotten past it by the time they arrive, but…

Rebecca: Yeah. A lot of preschools, I think, still maintained in person, but…

James: Yeah, so big challenges out there. I think we’re up for it. What I love about being in higher education is that we constantly question, we’re curious by nature, stubborn sometimes and have to see data in order to change our minds. But, these are all things we’re good at, and as long as we pay attention, don’t forget the lessons we’ve learned and recognize that the world has changed, and if we’re willing to figure out how we change, then I think this has a good ending. So I’m optimistic. But it’s going to be a lot of work. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Definitely, and some values, of changes of things like flexibility are things that we see as value, perhaps, in students now that we didn’t see before as important skill sets and things, and adaptability.

James: Yeah, and helping students persist, and all the qualities that helped drive us to moving forward in higher education, and so forth. How do we instill some of that curiosity and work ethic? All of us, each one of us, has a unique story of why we went to school and how we want to move forward with our lives. So how do we tap into that and help students be successful? That’s what gets me up in the morning and makes me excited about my job.

Rebecca: And we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

James: Good question. So I can tell you what’s next on my horizon. I’m in the STEM field, I’m doing some research and doing some digging. I’m concerned about traditionally underrepresented groups of students in STEM fields and their success and persistence. I am very fortunate to have an NSF grant that’s sponsoring some work in this area. And when I interview and talk to students, their perspective is very interesting. For example, I was talking with a young Hispanic woman, very smart, already has a job lined up, great, great student. And she said, “Yeah, they bring guest speakers in the class, and no one looks like me, all the guest speakers look like the professor,” …which is like me, an old white guy. So where are the young people? Where are people that, I know it sounds silly, but that look different, but more importantly, have different backgrounds and different experiences and different paths to success. And that’s such an easy thing to fix at all our institutions. We have alumni of diversity who are out there. So I’m concerned about our ability to attract and retain traditionally underrepresented students in STEM fields, because that’s the pipeline for faculty in STEM. So you want to attack the faculty problem in STEM, let’s fix this problem. And you can argue let’s fix K through 12, but I can impact where I’m at right now. And down the road that’s going to impact senior-level administration. So the more people who choose an academic career, the more diverse points of view we have, the more likely that they’ll persist in the career and move into leadership. So, that’s a big problem I’m working on. That’s what’s next for me is some research and scholarship in that area. Because I want the best and brightest students no matter what their background is, because they got to take care of me when I’m old. And I’m already getting pretty old.

Rebecca: I think that’s a perfect note to end on. [LAUGHTER] Thanks so much for that conversation. Really important things to be thinking about.

James: Yeah, good stuff. And thank you so much for inviting me. I really appreciate it. Best wishes to you all. And let’s reconnect in the fall and see what lessons have we hung on to and how crazy is the fall. So, let’s circle back if you don’t mind, I’d love to catch up with you again.

John: That would be great. It’s always great talking to you. Thank you.

James: Great. Awesome. All right. Bye bye.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.


111. The Business of Academic Dishonesty

There are a number of websites that market themselves as study tools and tutoring services that are used by students as tools for cheating. In this episode, Dr. Liz Schmitt joins us to discuss how these sites work and the steps faculty can take to protect their intellectual property and the academic integrity of their courses. Liz is an economics professor and Acting Chair in the Department of Economics at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes

Rebecca: There are a number of websites that market themselves as study tools and tutoring services that are used by students as tools for cheating. In this episode, we’ll discuss how these sites work and the steps faculty can take to protect their intellectual property and the academic integrity of their courses.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.


John: Our guest today is Dr. Liz Schmitt. Liz is an economics professor and Acting Department Chair in the Department of Economics at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Liz.

Liz: Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are:

Liz: Cocoa and coconut.

Rebecca: Interesting.

Liz: It is. It’s my favorite. And I actually nagged John until he bought me more.

Rebecca: Excellent.

John: And I have ginger peach black tea.

Rebecca: I have Lady Grey today.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk a little bit about the growing problem that we’ve seen with the growth of online services that seemed to be designed primarily to facilitate academic dishonesty. I know you’ve had some issues with that in your courses recently. So, we thought this would be a good time to talk about that.

Liz: No, excellent. My post-traumatic stress hasn’t been maximized by the issue. So, let’s talk about it some more. But seriously, actually, it’s a really important issue. And I think our faculty are just not as well informed of this as they need to be. I think in the coming year, it’s going to become my mission to talk about this a lot more.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the incident that just recently happened to you to give some context and to help faculty understand how these kinds of things play out?

Liz: Certainly. So, really for years, even with the growth of the internet, if you’re using a publisher product… and it used to be sort of paper test banks and end-of-chapter questions… they show up on the internet. Some faculty just aren’t careful and were just posting them on non-password, open web pages. And then sites begin to grow where publisher content was widely published, by students often, with answers and answer keys to sort of pay it forward to future students who might be reusing it. I think what struck me this fall was the extent at which original content (because of this problem I had given up on publisher content)… but my original content in terms of my questions were being uploaded, essentially in real time. And within a few days, custom answers were being made by some of these sites. And this is really a new step in it, because it used to be the easiest way to get around this was to be writing your own content and guarding that content. And we find unfortunately, in September, that that was not enough.

John: The problem isn’t entirely new, though. For decades, maybe for centuries, fraternities and sororities and so forth, have kept files of old exams. But, the internet allows that to scale much more extensively and creates profit opportunities for people who facilitate those services. So could you tell us a little bit about some of the sites that do this?

Liz: Well, let me say this takes a step from the fraternity/sorority test file with this obvious broadening of the audience online, and no longer in geographic proximity. So, social affiliation and institution is no longer an indicator of what’s available to you. It’s searchable. So, it’s fraternity test file on steroids. It’s really one of the issues. But the other issue is these online proliferation of sites correspond to publishers emphasis on their digital content. As publishers really deal with essentially trying to get out of a used textbook market and kind of adapting for new ages of information, they really push their online content… which means faculty are relying more on that online content to operationalize many best practices such as retrieval practice for their students. So, it’s also more useful for students to have access to this. But, I think what really happened this fall is their ability to customize in short frames of time really eliminates the ability for me to just change up assignments in order to control the problem. So, really for low monthly fees, Chegg.com is what I ran into trouble with and for the low, low price of $15 a month they can upload questions. There’s a limit on how many questions, I think, they get a month but students potentially being strategic about it can upload questions and then get customized answers. Caveat emptor, some of the answers were great, some not so great and downright strange, which is really how I gleaned on to the problem to begin with. [LAUGHTER] And there are other sites. Chegg has some competitors I would say Chegg’s probably the market leader in this, but there are some competitors: Course Hero…

John: Course Hero has been out there for quite a while. My first exposure to this was about four or five years ago, when I had a student post in their online class that they were a member of Course Hero and they encouraged other people to join, mentioning that they could get their membership just by contributing a certain amount of graded work from the course to the site in return for that membership, and asking them to use her code so she could also get some credit for them joining. I had a little chat with that student about academic integrity and reminded her that if she posts anything on that site it would have to be taken down and she was going to be reported for this. This type of thing seems to be increasingly more common.

Liz: …much more common. And then you even have an issue like Quizlet. And one of the issues like Quizlet is students actually use it to create flashcards to study. So, I actually think there’s some honest intent for students that often come on to Quizlet. By making quizlets out of your questions and things you ask though, they actually create something for students that come after them. But, often Quizlet is really set up for students to actually create flashcards for different kinds of courses and study. But that’s really the leftover intent. And then, of course, there are online paper mills sites that actually offer existing papers… and again, narrowing topics can get around that and just not say “Write a paper on any broad topic…” that’s kind of really asking for trouble. But again, the customization that has come along makes that even more problematic as well.

Rebecca: And it’s somewhat affordable. It’s not incredibly expensive to be a member of these sites or to get a paper written for for you.

Liz: Yes, Chegg’s membership is $15 a month. So, that’s incredibly affordable. There have been sites… they come and go… kind of on a dark webish sketchy servers… but there are also sites offering to just take your online course. Those tend to be $1200 dollars, and up… Those sites get to be more pricier. But frankly, if you were a faculty member serving an institution with a more affluent student body, you should be very concerned about that.

John: Many of these sites also provide custom paper writing services. So, even if you’ve specified a narrow range of paper topics, students could still order a custom written paper.

Liz: Exactly. I would be fair to Chegg.com… that Chegg com responds within 24 hours in my experience to DMCA requests. So, they’re actually very responsive. And they take them down immediately. And they send warnings to the account that you posted things that you didn’t have permission to post. Chegg.com also cooperated with an honor code request, basically giving me upload dates and the emails of the members that uploaded content as well. So, they will cooperate, like I said, a pretty rapid fashion. I think it really, in the area of legality, it’s not clear if you correct yourself but become this conduit for things to happen, then, I don’t know what kind of legal responsibility is going to come there. It’s sort of beyond my expertise. But, I suspect it would take big players it takes like publisher lawyers and things like that, to really come up against this and demand that you really set up a situation that facilitates the repeated stealing of our content. Because it can be an intellectual property whack-a-mole game, because they take it down, but then another student post It from entirely different account and Chegg and these sites are kind of saying they’re not responsible for that. Legally, I’m not sure if you facilitate that, how responsible you are. There’s also paraphrasing tools. Paraphrasing tools… that’s very caveat emptor or buyer beware type of situation… and I actually have an example to show you what can happen when plagiarism tools go bad. Friends don’t let friends use plagiarism tools or this is going to happen. So, let me show you the answer from Chegg expert which was a very nice answer… is as follows: “Expectation of rise in inflation will lead to a drop in the prices of Treasury bonds. This is because the required yield by investors will increase in order to generate higher returns after beating the inflationary pressure.” Great answer, run it through a paraphraser and this is what you’re going to get: “Desire for ascend in the expansion will prompt drop in the cost of the Treasury bond. This is on the grounds that the required yield by the financial specialist will increment so as to produce higher returns subsequent to beating the inflationary wait.” [LAUGHTER] So, that’s not a thing… that is not a thing. I think the odd choice of vocabulary… Here’s words that college students almost never used. And here’s 10 of them right now, in the same paragraph. Obviously, that’s the warning sign. And the idea is, of course, context is important. Certain words that are used by convention or tradition in financial markets. Something that’s really a synonym, technically, in the English language is not in the context of financial markets.

John: A traditional way of catching students who were doing this often was that they were providing you with something that seemed a lot stronger than their other work.

Liz: Yes.

John: And this sort of reduces that down to where, perhaps, it may not be as obvious in all cases that someone is doing that because the quality of the work will no longer look exceptional in the same way.

Liz: Yeah, the exceptional quality of work, you’re right… because the first answer actually does set up my radar because it uses a complexity in sentence structure that I might not expect in this answer. But, I think the other one was just immediately obvious because the word choice just doesn’t fit. So, even if you were actually looking around on Investopedia, or some other website to borrow language, it’s not language that would be used by someone writing for that.

Rebecca: Even as a non-expert in the field, I could tell you that that is not language of the field.

Liz: “Desire for ascend in the expansion?” Yeah.

Rebecca: No, no.

Liz: I think pretty much called that one out.

John: But if you have some foreign students in your class, that sort of thing might sometimes happen. I’ve certainly seen examples where students have used synonyms inappropriately. So, some of this may get by.

Rebecca: In some cases, though, if it was a student where English wasn’t the first language, you would probably have some assignments and know already the kinds of mistakes that that student would make.

John: Yes.

Rebecca: So, you would have an idea of whether or not that would be consistent for that student or not.

John: We touched on the issue of hiring other people to do a student’s work, but could you talk a bit more about how the gig economy may play a role in academic integrity issues?

Liz: Well, the gig economy is basically the idea of you give me your specialized topic and I will write a paper custom for you: words, APA or MLA, the formatting etc., ready to go… Course completion, I will take your online course for you… paper writing services, again, is sort of that issue. And again, in ome of these paper writing services, it’s sent as a Word document, and they don’t actually strip the properties of who created that document.

John: And one of the things that has helped facilitate this, though, is the international reach of the internet. In countries such as India, where incomes and wages are a lot lower, you can pay people relatively small amounts to get reasonably high quality papers written in very strong, solid English

Liz: Right, exactly.

Rebecca: So, what can faculty do? This sounds very dismal.

Liz: It does sound dismal and there’s no solution that doesn’t involve some time on task here. And I think that’s a big problem. Because most of my faculty colleagues, I don’t really know anyone who sit around doing nothing… who has extra time to deal with this, and that’s got to give. Scaffolding is a common way to deal with this. So, it’s a recipe for disaster to assign a paper, be very unspecific about the topic: “Do any topic in post-World War II US history out…” That’s going to be bad. You want to focus the topic, then you actually scaffold. When do you want a thesis statement? When do you want an outline? an annotated bibliography? So, trying to have the pieces turned in really prevents their ability from coming out to get a paper or it’s really the red flag when a student several weeks into the process suddenly wants to change topic, having had struggled earlier with the topics and then they tell you when they want to change, you need to get ready for what that paper is going to look like. And you can scaffold in other ways, even on homeworks: you reference. I reference “Using the model from chapter seven,” “using the model we talked about in class in week six” or “using the discussion issues that were brought up in discussion three.” And so you can’t easily post those and get answers because then the students would have to provide the context, which defeats the purpose as well, of the questions. Algorithmic questions, and algorithmic questions can be posted and solved, but algorithmic questions are really after the fact, it makes it a lot easier to snag people. Because, if you just have a general problem…. So, I had a problem on the internal rate of return, which is a common time value of money concept in the field of finance. And while I think students really got their answers from Chegg, unless they were kind of lazy enough to exactly copy the wording of the answers, I couldn’t really get them because there really was a way that you solved this in the spreadsheet. So, the solution should look the same. So, you get around that by algorithmic questions where the numbers are unique, and then you know, exactly who uploaded that question. And in a learning management system, it’s easy enough to regenerate numbers every semester or year that you’re teaching the course. So, there’s a new set of unique numbers. So, that’s more about enforcement, I think. Questions that work from very specific data, maybe a data set, or quotations. So you can start with: “Mitt Romney, in a debate in 2012, called China a currency manipulator. What does that mean?” And so that quotation again, makes it harder to find general answers to that question. Questions that reference their own experiences, where they have to call up a specific experience themselves, and expound on it, and apply it in class. And current events. So, if you do actually have a very current event, then you can actually prevent going back in time and trying to find older questions, because it’s a current event as well. And so you’re constantly changing. So, you might be testing on the same topic, but you’re constantly changing the context. And your question has to be written so that you forced them to address the context as well.

John: I’ll often ask students to find an example of something in the last six months that illustrates some concept that we’ve just discussed in class. Because if I only offer the class once a year, they’re not going to be able to go back and find earlier examples from the class.

Liz: Right. And then I guess my least compromised questions are ones where they actually create a graph using the Federal Reserve Economic Database based on macro data or financial data. And again, that’s right, because it has to be current. And from year to year you change the time period, or what you want them to look at, or different measures of inflation, things like that. And then you can really grab that, and I have yet to see a FRED question appear on Chegg.

John:(…and FRED is an acronym for Federal Reserve Economic Data.).

Rebecca: What is your process for monitoring because clearly, you’re doing some monitoring.

Liz: Right. Well, when I found the extent of this problem in September, I basically went forward several weeks, and just copied and pasted questions into the internet search engines. I also ended up at least getting a subscription to Chegg so I could look, because the other issue is if someone screenshots an image of a question from their learning management system that might not show up in a Google search, but it’s going to show up on Chegg because Chegg actually has the text… kind of an alt text… that comes up, and that will show up as well. And so I started doing that. I opened a Google doc. And then every time I found one, I knew I had to change the questions in my graded activities. And then I would put it in the Google document. And I ended up with a 20-page DMCA document to Chegg about all of the questions I wanted to take down that take me through about week 10 my course. So… to be continued… as to how many I will find. But really, the monitoring really comes up at first when you get just a very unusual answer, or you start getting all the same answers. So, in a class of about 37, there’s about 10 students that were trying to tell me the same thing, especially if they illustrate a concept… I don’t ask for a numerical example… But they give me one. When you see the first person do that, you’re like “That’s great.” And then you think, “Well, why would the second, third and fourth person choose the exact same numbers to illustrate this concept?” There’s only one reason and it’s not a good one.

John: You mentioned the paraphrasing tools making it a little harder to find when people were trying to copy materials. There’s other tools out there too, though, which are online plagiarism detection sites where students can get a paper that they think fits the requirements of the assignment, upload it to that, see if it’s found, and if it is, just make minor changes and resubmit it until it ends up with a relatively low plagiarism score. And complicating this a bit, is that some of the major paper mills advertise that they use a TurnItIn service to check the papers that they sell for plagiarized content. Because one of the issues for the companies that are selling papers to students is that sometimes the people they hire to write papers simply plagiarize existing material. So, this makes it a little bit harder perhaps to detect that sort of work for hire. What might you do to detect papers that have already been run through the TurnItIn or similar systems and modified to come up with low plagiarism scores?

Liz: Well, I think you have to go backwards from that and recognize the limitations of those tools. I was never a big fan of TurnItIn. SafeAssign is just kind of a starting point. SafeAssign often gives a lot of false positives as well. Because if people are citing sometimes similar sources, which you would expect, then you’re going to see that pop up in SafeAssign. So, I think you got to go back and say, are you choosing the topic that is sort of paper mill proof, or things like that? Downloading when you have electronic submissions, which I do, and downloading them can also pick up issues of extra characters designed to trip it up. So, people put characters and they change the color to white to try and trip up that detector and that easily shows up when you highlight them. Those are some of the things that I would use. wWe haven’t had TurnItIn on our campus. We had SafeAssign, which I already knew the limitations, but the tell is you read it, and you’re like I’ve met five college students that write like that… in 23 years. So, I’m now deeply suspicious of that. Often the language doesn’t match, which is why scaffolding also becomes important… because the language doesn’t match what’s been done earlier in terms of: if you don’t think the student wrote the paper and you can’t find the source, you invite them in. And you ask them about where they found the source. Or I really love what you said about the impact of inflation on average households in the 1970s. Could you explain how you developed that? …and they won’t be able to and as a result, they’ll often say, “Well, I wrote this paper and I immediately forgot everything.” And faculty members get caught up into this. “Well, I have to prove a negative or I have to prove that that’s not possible.” And you don’t, I think you’d say: “On your face, that’s a really ridiculous argument. Either you need an MRI right now, because something wrong has happened. You’ve had a stroke and you need help, or you’re not being honest about where that paper came from. And you’re allowed a chance to defend yourself from these charges. But that defense isn’t reasonable. And I’m going to move it on.”

John: Pretty much every time I’ve run across that and brought the students in, they almost always confessed pretty quickly when they realize that they can’t explain what they had written.

Liz: Yeah, I think turn it in has these separate issues too. Is it ethical? We’re complaining about our intellectual property being posted. But, students that do write original papers, that’s their intellectual property. And we’re forcing them by virtue of getting their degree and meeting requirements of a course, to release some of that somewhat. So, I think there are issues of privacy and property, ethical issues that I know a lot of other faculty out there have just really pushed back against for years with turn it in. Others argue it’s about us policing students by requiring this prevention method, we’re almost taking the assumption that something’s going to go wrong, that it can create a hostility and an adversarial relationship that we don’t want in students. I think there’s some truth to that as well, which is why it becomes so important to think about the design of your course and your learning activities, because it’s so much better to prevent this and to make it very difficult than to deal with it afterwards. As I tell my students in my annual first day of class, don’t test me on this because I fail people at least once a year for this kind of thing. I actually say this is the worst part of my job, and I hate it, but I do it. So, that should tell you how important it is to me.

Rebecca: I think that it’s sometimes it’s a little more obvious to faculty how to prevent some of these things from happening in an face-to-face class, because you can be doing in class assignments, you can have them working on things in class and see their progress. But that doesn’t play out maybe as easily online because you don’t necessarily know what they’re doing. So, do you have some strategies of how you scaffold or do things a little bit differently online?

Liz: I would back up again, because some people say, “Well, this is why I don’t teach online, because I’m worried about ringers and things like that.” But, often people that tell me that do assign papers, and I say “Basically, anything that’s done outside of class is susceptible to these sites…anything.” And so really, again, there’s a lot of face-to-face classes, particularly in STEM that are using homework packages that students complete on their own. And then there are plenty of classes that assign papers that are done outside of class. The idea is, is that the in-class possibility of a face-t- face class does provide this check. But in an online class, you really compel them to actually talk about things in a discussion. And so you can use your online discussions to lay the groundwork of what they want to talk about, requiring them to reference discussions within the course as well. And so that’s one way to try and mimic that check that in-class does. And there’s proctoring software, which again, is potentially foolable as well, but there’s also design. So in an online class, the idea is no one thing should be worth a lot. Any one thing should be worth less than 20% in my opinion, because the idea here is if you want a ringer, you don’t want that ringer, by just taking a single exam, to move your letter grade significantly. You’d need a ringer for the whole course or a really, really good friend to do this for you. So, that’s another thing and in designing them exams, you can time them, not necessarily just time them but there’s one question at a time, no backtracking options. So, you want to think about a very structured way to require students to demonstrate understanding that just make it a lot more difficult to outsource.

22:08 redo

John: You can do the same type of scaffolding online as you do in a face-to-face class. You just have different stages, as you said. In the first stage, you could have them submit a thesis statement. In the next stage, you could ask the students to submit a bibliography, followed by an annotated bibliography, and then a rough draft and a final draft of the project . And that’s not really much different than it would be in a face-to-face class.

Liz: And all in the same place are all of these writing samples because that’s how you’re communicating with students: via emails, course messaging, discussion forums, and then other graded work. So, in some sense, there’s a large body of written work to form a basis for your suspicions or concerns.

Rebecca: I’ll also add that we focused on lot on written work, test questions, and things like this. But, the same kind of plagiarism can happen with images, it can happen with code. I’ve had those same experiences in my classes as well…. sharing of digital files to make a particular design and boy does that look kind of similar to something I’ve seen before or an image that’s being claimed as their own or not documented where it came from. So those same things happen. They don’t play out in the same way in Chegg and some of these other sites, but those same practices happen through like a gig economy or just sharing amongst other students and when their digital files are a lot easier to share them when they were physical things.

Liz: Also in creative fields, there’s something worse in the way that’s sort of accepted, because if you look at fashion design, the ripping off of top designer early designs to then the knockoffs is astonishing. There’s a photo that has a Manolo Blahnik sandal, frankly next to an Ivanka Trump sandal, and they’re the identical red sandal. And it’s really just you slapped a different name on it and use different materials, perhaps. And obviously, they’re about six months apart in terms of product cycle. So, I think people in creative fields see that recycling, even in the music field, whether they get permission, you see music, that’s a remix of other older musicians, and you need permission for that, but you don’t necessarily know that when you’re listening to it and enjoying it. So, I think you actually see in some of the real-world situations how visual borrowing and frankly, stealing, is kind of accepted in some of these fields by some very successful people. Whereas, in the written world, when authors get found with plagiarism, it’s considered a big deal. And it’s kind of very embarrassing for them to get caught. Books can be recalled… things like that. It seems like written word… there seems to be more of a consequence, for now, when that happens, whereas in creative fields, that’s not always true.

Rebecca: There’s a lot of visual and audio copyright cases, though. And that’s where that tends to play out. The fashion example that you’re giving… those are considered functional things and not considered creative. So therefore, they’re not protected by the law in the same way.

Liz: Exactly. But, I think for what students observe, and behavior that they might emulate, when they look at professionals and their choices, that distinction isn’t going to come up.

Rebecca: One thing that I always argue is that when we talk about intellectual integrity, that copyright comes into the discussion in particular fields, because it is sometimes a common practice. And it’s there for a reason. we iterate on our culture, our culture creates new culture. It’s not a crazy concept, but you need to know where it comes from. And you need to provide attribution and in an appropriate way, which is no different than following MLA or APA or some other thing. So, I think that’s always something that people should be thinking of, and that when you’re having written papers, and there’s images and things in it, that you’re also thinking about that part of the content as well and not just the written word.

John: One other thing that I’d like to bring up is an earlier podcast that we did with Judith Boettcher, who talked about one way of avoiding this issue by having group projects that provide students with a lot more autonomy, but in a very structured fashion. And that’s perhaps a way of getting around this where students can take more ownership of the project and they create more of the project as a group, which would make it a little harder to engage in academic dishonesty. And we’ve also, in previous podcasts, talked about some open pedagogy projects, where the work that students do is posted publicly. And if they know that when their work is posted publicly, and they’re copying something from anyone else, it’s much more likely that they would be found and they’d get in some trouble later. So, those are two other things, perhaps, that might be ways of reducing the incentives for academic dishonesty.

Rebecca: Community based learning is another one… or service learning where you’re doing projects with the local community, because all of that context would be unique every time you’re doing something. So, that’s another opportunity for grading those assignments that really aren’t reproducible, and would be really, really hard to get an answer for… unless the person lived in the same community.

Liz: I agree. I think the biggest challenge is in some of these courses that are tool courses. In some courses you’re acquiring the tools that you would learn for projects and to consult, etc. And so when you teach these tool courses, it’s not always appropriate to have these kind of finished product things, because they’re in progress of assembling that toolbox that they’re going to use. And this is where reliance on sites like Chegg become a big problem.

Rebecca: At the beginning, we started with the idea that faculty aren’t always aware of these tools, or even the ways that students try to manipulate the system. Can you talk about ways that we can help increase this awareness with our colleagues?

Liz: I was just talking about this this morning with another colleague and we were bemoaning our Chegg purgatory this semester, and she says, “I just don’t think other faculty realizes… or how can we be the only ones that care about this.” So, I think some of them are honestly unaware because faculty aren’t always in sort of the student space and understand what those crazy kids are doing these days. So, I think, in some sense, faculty that have been more tuned in to creating learning community or kind of developing a relationship with their students are more likely to get ideas of what’s going on as well. But I also think there’s some willful ignorance here… this whole “Well, I didn’t know.” But I took steps to make sure I didn’t know because once you do know, it obligates you to do something, if you “don’t know,” and I’m using quotes, which is not helpful on a podcast, air quotes, but if you really don’t know that you’re MyLab component of the course is completely compromised, that doesn’t obligate you to think about changing up your course, and the weighting of activities and what activities. Once you know, it really obligates you to act as a faculty member. And so some people say, “Well, I wonder if my stuff is up there?” and like, “Oh, it is.” I don’t even have to look, I can say “Yes, it is.” And then academic dishonesty takes time. I’m really at 40 hours and counting with academic dishonesty documentation, DMCA documentation, and then reworking items in the course to deal with this issue so it wasn’t a lost semester. And I’m a full professor, think about an assistant professor not only trying to balance and develop their research agenda in conjunction with this, but also not wanting to rock the boat with unhappy students. I’m going to be getting a nice bottle of something sparkly, when I read my faculty evaluations in January. They’re going to be lit. Perhaps we’ll do a dramatic reading and have a tea party with tea and maybe something stronger. But, you know what? I can weather that. I can take that. And that’s going to be an issue. And frankly, I’m really proud of this institution, about how administrators really back faculty, enforcing the integrity of coursework and the degrees. And I know that doesn’t happen at other institutions, frankly other institutions that are maybe more tuition dependent and driven… that are unwilling to make steps that make students leave with financial implications. So, in some sense, this is really one of the best environments here at Oswego to actually try to enforce these policies as well. So, I think that’s one of the reasons that faculty don’t act, because there absolutely is some blowback to that.

John: And faculty might also see that each year they teach the same course, their students are doing better and they might be very content just to see that improvement in the scores so that all the work being submitted looks more like the best work from the year before. And it’s really easy to passively accept that.

Liz: Well, I would actually note that what’s more astonishing, is not the extent that Chegg has corrupted these issues, but there is a significant contingent of students that do not use it. Maybe they are unaware of it. Maybe they decide they don’t want to use it. But, when someone says, “Well, I can’t believe how many students cheat,” I would say, “Well, I can’t believe how many don’t, given the incentive structure.” And so that’s somewhat encouraging. But, also I had to decide if I was going to email the entire class and say, “Look, I’ve seen this happen. And you have to know that this is not allowed, that I’ve already made it clear in the syllabus. This is not allowed, and this is what will happen.” And it was a real-life decision about the Streisand effect, because you have to wonder if 20% of the class is saying “Wait, there’s a Chegg and we can get answers there? Alright!” You didn’t know if you wanted to clue them in, but I figured I had to act under full information.

Rebecca: I think it’s also really interesting when you start seeing students wanting to apply for jobs at those kinds of organizations, and then what kinds of conversations you’re going to have with those students, when they say, “Hey, I found this really awesome job that I want to apply for at Chegg.” It’s like, “Well, think about that. What does that mean? And what are those implications? And where are the ethics behind that?”

Liz: Well John, and I were talking earlier, there are Faculty Fellows at Course Hero, and some of them have made a name about teaching in the profession. John was probably more polite about that. One of them’s at a conference and I think I would stand up and say, “How do you reconcile partnering with a site that facilitates academic dishonesty and intellectual property theft every single day?” I would be curious as to what the answer is.

Rebecca: The pay is really, really good? [LAUGHTER] I don’t know.

Liz: I guess. The one I’m thinking of has a pretty sweet gig right now, so I’m not really sure.

John: this presentation was right after one that was riddled with references to learning styles, so I saved my powder for that one.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Liz: First, I’m already kind of brought this up in faculty assembly. And I’ve brought it up in academic meetings, because I’m acting chair this year. So I brought it up in leadership meetings. And I hope we can actually do a workshop through our Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. So, maybe a breakout workshop talking about our experience, and try and really broaden the understanding of the issues here. I’m also working with our faculty union, the United University Professors is also very interested in compiling violations of intellectual property rights, and trying to deal with that and push back against those sites. And I’m actually sharing my DMCA documents. So I made an editable form for some of the big sites, so you can easily go in and change them. I made a template for what you would ask the Associate Dean to fill out in order to ask for upload information from these sites as well. So trying to minimize the work involved for people who want to do this and take action. And then, finally, I’m just looking ahead about how I’m going to really redesign this course that I’ll teach a year from now, and to motivate and enforce original work.

John: And I should note, we’ve also been offering workshops for at least seven or eight years now.

Liz: You’ve been offering workshops on these sites and things like that….

John: …and attendance has been generally limited. We’re lucky if we get 15 people.

Liz: But you don’t have me. I’m a draw. I’m a draw… a star. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: …especially if we could do the dramatic reading of the examples.

Liz: Exactly. There will be a dramatic reading, and there will be sufficient supplies of snark. And I think it’ll work. But, I actually think maybe a case study. So, we come and we talk about these sites, but I can sit down with other faculty who’ve had this problem. And this is what I found… this is how I found out about it. And this is what I did about it, and this is what you should be doing about it.

Rebecca: This has been super informative. Thank you very much, Liz.

John: Thank you, Liz.

Liz: Well, thank you for having me.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Brittany Jones and Kiara Montero.