With so many classes online during the pandemic—many of them taught by professors still struggling to figure out how to teach in the format—students are increasingly turning to homework-help websites.
While many students say they’re looking for the assistance they’re not getting from their colleges, professors argue that students are using these sites to cheat on quizzes and tests.
Joseph Ching, a junior at Purdue University, says many of his professors have warned students not to use sites like Chegg, where students are posting homework and quiz questions and getting answers from tutors.
He says he would never use such sites, but he understands their lure this semester, since he is finding it so hard to find other students to study with because of COVID restrictions.
Still, he hopes that other students in his classes are not cheating, because that could bring down his grade, since many classes are graded on a curve.
This problem with students turning more to the web to just copy down answers isn’t only at Purdue.
“All of my colleagues from graduate school are scattered across the country at different universities, they're all finding it too,” says Rachel Davenport, a senior lecturer at Texas State University and interim head of the Honor Code Council at the university, which handles issues of academic dishonesty. She says the number of cases the committee sees doubled since the start of the pandemic. “We're seeing a lot more honor code violations come up in general, but especially because of these online platforms like Chegg.com and Course Hero.”
I reached out to Chegg, and sure enough, business there is booming. Students pay for a subscription of $14.99 per month to get access to Chegg Study, which promises students “step-by-step Textbook Solutions for 9,000 books” and the ability to “search millions of homework answers.”
The company argues that its policies clearly state that students should not use the site for cheating. On its website, it says that “The vast majority of Chegg students use our services to help them learn and understand. We don’t tolerate abuse of our platform or services.”
“We are putting extra measures in place to monitor it—that includes we’re hiring more teams, we're constantly working to improve our algorithms and the way we look for keywords or content that's not supposed to be there,” says Marc Boxser, a spokesperson for Chegg.
But Davenport, at Texas State, says plenty of students misuse the service. “The difficult part is when students are then taking graded questions from homeworks or exams and just posting them up, getting the answer, and then just using that answer as theirs, instead of doing the work themselves.”
“From what I've seen in the last six or eight months ... is a student will post a graded question in its entirety to Chegg.com,” she adds. “Then a ‘tutor’ from somewhere in the world will answer it, correctly or incorrectly. And then that student who asked it will copy and paste it or use that answer in their own graded assignment. But the problematic thing is that anyone with a check account can now see the question and answer. So only one student might have asked the question, but a hundred students might access it and use the answer.”
But students are seeing this very differently. For instance Luz Elena Anaya Chong, a student at Texas State, is currently struggling with her economics class, and she considered trying Chegg—not to cheat, but to get the help she isn’t getting from her professor. She says she went to the tutoring center for help, “and none of them say that they feel confident teaching me that economics class,” she says.
Before the pandemic hit, Chong loved economics. She was even thinking of changing her major to it. But this semester it feels almost impossible to understand. She actually sent me a meme that's been going around on social media that captures how she feels in general. The original tweet is in Spanish, but it translates as "You look tired. Yeah, I'm teaching myself five college classes.”
Automated Proctor Tools Draw Complaints
There's another thing that is noticeably different for many students this semester during the pandemic. It's the way quizzes and exams are proctored.
For Chong, the student at Texas State, every week she has a quiz for her marketing class that uses an automated tool called Proctorio to monitor her every move as she takes it, to make sure she isn’t cheating. Specifically, the system can watch quiz-takers through their webcam and then its algorithm flags if they do something like talk to someone off camera who could be helping them. The idea is that the professor will then go back and rewatch the parts that were flagged to see if it constitutes a violation.
“It is very nerve-wracking. I don't want to be accused of cheating when that was not even the case,” says Chong. “It makes me more nervous.”
She’s not alone. Students across the country have pushed back since the pandemic against the rise of these automated proctoring tools. At dozens of college campuses, students have signed petitions calling for their colleges to ban the use of Proctorio.
At the City University of New York, more than 28,000 people have signed a petition calling for the ban. “CUNY colleges must create solutions to test-taking that does not violate students' right to privacy, especially in their own homes,” the petition reads.
We reached out to Mike Olsen, the CEO of Proctorio, to give him a chance to respond to these complaints.
“First of all I feel really bad for students who are going to universities today during the pandemic,” he says. “I would have been so upset and disappointed if I couldn't go on campus, and I think that's what we're seeing a lot. A lot of our original test takers are students who are full-time employed. They have children, and they can never go to campus. It's just impossible. They’ve got to take their exams at 3:00 a.m. That's the normal demographic that we serve. And now because everyone's forced online, they're forced off campus, and they're being forced into this product.”
He says that the company is trying to do a better job of advising colleges and professors on how to use the product—to better explain it to students and to use it ethically. The goal, he says, is to give professors choices on what information the product collects to guard against cheating.
I told Olsen about Chong’s experience with the software, and how stressed it made her feel. “I think that that comes again back to implementation,” he says. “It's half on us, half on the institution.”
What does Davenport, the Texas State lecturer, think of Proctorio? It turns out she piloted the system this summer. And she saw plenty of innocent moments that were flagged as suspicious. “I saw a student arguing with her boyfriend who came home unexpectedly, students talking out loud to themselves. They yell at the dog to stop barking,” she says. “But you know, it just flags it. And I look and I say, Oh, that's fine. And I just move on. So I hope that professors are communicating with their students that look, there's going to be flags, and I just see it and it's fine. And we move on. It's not a big deal.”
Before using Proctorio, she had been using a different system, called Examity, that uses human proctors who watch over a webcam in real time. She had never heard of the petitions against Proctorio.
“When Proctorio came on board, I felt like my students breathed a sigh of relief,” she says, since the automated system feels less invasive than having a stranger watch them. “We're all in sort of a tricky situation because which students are trustworthy? Probably the vast majority, but what about the handful that aren't and how do you, how do you work around that?”
Hear more on the full episode of this week's podcast. Listen to this week’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.
This is part three of a seven-part podcast series. Check out episode 1 and episode 2 and episode 3 as well, and look for the next installment on Oct 20 on the EdSurge Podcast feed.