It is interesting to me that there are certain denizens of the university community who are anxious for faculty to increase the number of online courses that we offer, and that this desire for us to pursue this aim is not generally driven primarily by a desire for us to better serve students with inflexible work schedules or scary-long commutes, or even to free up scarce classroom space. Rather, some of the most vocal proponents (at least at my university) of expanding online course offerings seem to believe online classes can accommodate much larger enrollments than can traditional classroom-bound classes.
Technically speaking, that's true -- you can set things up so that your online class will allow hundreds of students to enroll in it, and the fire marshall won't bat an eyelash. However, making enrollments really, really big also makes the workload to assess student work (including discussion board-based discussions, which now read like papers without the benefit of spellcheck) really, really big. Plus, you also get to deal with all the technical glitches the students find with accessing materials and submitting materials and joining groups for discussions and not blowing deadlines. (It doesn't take a really, really big online enrollment for your students to discover every technical glitch there is to find.)
Of course, increasing support for graders might help, but this doesn't come up so much, since the point is to save buckets of money. (I should note that my better half, who has been taking some online courses through organizations that hope at some point to turn a profit, was invited to be a "community TA" for one of the courses so taken --for free! Obviously, the best way to become profitable is to recruit skilled labor that is also free.)
Well, say the hopeful advocates, there are rumors of automated programs for grading student papers. Maybe you can run all the work through those?
Even if I trusted those programs to prioritize the things I'm looking for in student papers (and, you know, to provide useful feedback to my students on their work), the boom in online classes has given rise to a boom in "services" for students "taking" online classes. Inside Higher Education describes the scene:
These sites make an appeal to the busy online student, struggling through a class they’re not good at or not interested in. The description of one site, wetakeyourclass.com*, reads: "I’m sure you are here because you are wondering 'how will I have time to take my online class?' It may be that one class such as statistics or accounting. We know some people have trouble with numbers. We get that. We are here to help.”
Prices for a “tutor” vary. Boostmygrades.com advertises a $695 rate for graduate classes, $495 for an algebra class, or $95 for an essay. When Inside Higher Ed, posing as a potential customer, asked for a quote for an introductory microeconomics class offered by Penn State World Campus, noneedtostudy.com offered to complete the entire course for $900, with payment upon completion, and onlineclasshelpers.com asked for $775, paid up front. Most sites promise at least a B in the course. ...
“If we just had a course that was just a multiple-choice final at the end there’d be a high chance of cheating,” [Eric] Zematis [director of Enterprise Systems at Charter Oak State College, a fully online institution] said. “When we design courses we try to look at having more interaction to try to discourage cheating.”
In the case of a site like We Take Your Class, Zematis surmised, the amount a student would have to pay would probably increase based on the number of assignments. If there were enough assignments, tests, or required discussions, then, using an online class-taking service could become prohibitively expensive.
A couple things worth noting here: First, the pedagogical steps that make it harder for students to cheat in an online course also tend to make student work in those online courses harder to grade. Second, the kids who have enough money to pay someone else to do that work for them seem like they're going to have a better shot at gaming the system and getting credit for taking online courses for which they've done essentially bupkis.
Does this leave me oddly comforted that students in my online classes probably don't have the means to hire someone to do their school work for them? Maybe ...
But wait! Can the Invisible Hand (and the excess of Ph.D.-holders) make sophisticated and hard-to-detect cheating affordable even for lower income students? Perhaps:
The website unemployedprofessors.com has teachers writing papers for students.**
“So you can play while we make your papers go away” is its tag line.
Organizers say education has already become a commodity and with tenure harder to get, teachers need work. ...
“I’d say this service represents a new solution to an age-old problem,” said one [person working for unemployedprofessors.com], adding the justification is supply and demand and a void in the marketplace.
Noting that turnitin.com has effectively barred students from buying recycled essays on the cheap, the professor said potential clients include international students whose English is poor, students too lazy to complete the work, students too busy with jobs paying for their education to do the work and science students who resent being asked to write papers in the humanities.
The service says the work should not be used to fulfill an academic requirement — but offers to supply dissertation chapters and personal statements used for admissions — and should be used as a guideline.
“This removes the ethical dimension on our side as we have no control over what a client does upon paying for and receiving the project,” said the professor.
“In fact, it places the ethical burden squarely on the shoulders of the student.”
The service started last fall and has recruited about 30 professors. While it doesn’t guarantee an A, it does guarantee high-quality work and turns away about 15 applicants for every one it hires.
I guess when people who have trained for academic careers cannot sell their expertise to a college or university, eventually selling their integrity might become a live option.
Here, if the professorial cheating-enablers are delivering what they seem to be promising, it's likely to be fairly labor intensive for them. At least part of the labor would involve writing a paper that actually sounds like a student paper. (Believe it or not, we can usually tell.) So either they're charging clients through the nose, or they're being financially exploited at least as much as they would be as adjuncts.
There seems to be a possibility, though, that a willing employee of a service like this might not have qualms about cutting some ethical corners herself -- perhaps providing the same basic paper for more than one client (upping the chances that those clients are caught using a paper that has been run through a service like TurnItIn already), or even plagiarizing in the production of a paper.
Also, given the understanding of how ethics works reflected in the claims from the website, I suspect buying an ethics paper from them might be a really bad call.
The selectiveness of hiring of these professorial cheating-enablers -- 15 applicants turned away for every one hired! -- may drive the prices from unemployedprofessors.com higher, but it's surely only a matter of time before those applicants who were turned away find each other and set up their own cheating-enabling service, maybe cutting out some layers of management so they can enable cheating among lower income students!
Yeah, there's a reason I skip higher education news coverage for weeks at a time.
* Since the original Inside Higher Education article, "We Take Your Class" has gone offline.
** As far as I can tell, this service is not marketed specifically for students taking online courses, but it seems like it could be used for that purpose.