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Paying for an A

September 21, 2012

The growth of the online education market appears to have spun off another, more surreptitious market – one that goes beyond the paper-writing services long available to less than honest students – and online educators are taking note.

A handful of websites have sprung up recently offering to take a student’s entire online class for them, handling assignments, quizzes, and tests, for a fee.

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.

Much about these sites is unclear. E-mails and phone calls from Inside Higher Ed went unanswered – and some of the sites have received negative customer reviews. Some seem to be run by the same person or group of people, and two of the sites, wetakeyourclasses.com and onlineclasshelpers.com, have the same IP address. Some do get good reviews, however, and at least one online forum includes comments from students who say they have successfully used an online class-taking service.Either way, administrators are concerned, seeing the emergence of these sites, scams or not, as a harbinger of an online education black market.

“It’s what they say about cockroaches: when you see one there are hundreds that you don’t see,” said A.J. Kelton, director of Emerging and Instructional Technology for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Montclair State University.

Concerns about cheating online are not new, of course, and institutions offering online courses are required to verify a student’s identity and check IP addresses to protect against financial aid fraud. But Eric Zematis, director of Enterprise Systems at Charter Oak State College, said sites like We Take Your Class seem designed more for an individual student trying to pass a course, and that raises new challenges.

Charter Oak is a fully online institution, and relies on a three-step process to try to ensure that the person who registers for a class is, in fact, the person who completes that class, according to Zematis.

First, there is an initial identity check. Charter Oak, like many other online education providers, uses Acxiom, a service that pulls from a large database of information to generate questions about a person’s history that only that person should know. For example, Acxiom might use address records to determine who you lived with five years ago and ask you to pick that person’s name from a list. It’s the same service used by a number of online banks, and Zematis said most of the time it works well.

If a prospective Charter Oak student cannot answer the questions generated by Acxiom, the student can call the registrar, who will look at the information in Acxiom and ask different questions. If the student still cannot pass, Charter Oak will accept a notarized copy of a passport or other government-issued ID.

Charter Oak also uses the Acxiom system whenever it administers a “high-stakes” exam, according to Zematis. A student logging on to take a test has to answer a few personal history questions before accessing the exam; a wrong answer to an Acxiom question won’t lock a student out from taking the test, but that student will get a call from Charter Oak later to try to sort of the issue. Zematis admits this system is not foolproof, but says it helps spot potential cheating.

The last step in Charter Oak’s identity verification plan involves pedagogy, not technology.

“If we just had a course that was just a multiple-choice final at the end there’d be a high chance of cheating,” Zematis 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.

Designing a course that precludes cheating might require thinking creatively and breaking away from simply uploading lecture videos and administering quizzes, said Kyle Johnson, an independent higher ed consultant.

“What kind of experience are we providing for students if someone is able to take an entire class for a student and we never figure it out from the interaction? At a pedagogical level, that’s my concern,” he said. “Are we really just dumping information at them so someone can come in and take a couple of quizzes and they’re done?”

Interaction, Johnson said, is crucial, whether that interaction is through online discussion or one-on-one interactions via Skype or a similar service.

“If we just make it enough extra work, it becomes too expensive for services like this to make any sense,” Johnson said.

Some institutions do require students to video conference in to a class, which presumably would make hiring a surrogate to take the class more difficult. Others use two-factor authentication systems, which might require a student to know something and to have something in order to log on. For example, some online courses send students devices that generate a random string of characters, and to log on the student must enter their password and the characters. This method can be expensive, though Zematis suggested it might become more common as the same technology becomes available as a smart phone application.

Though preventing cheating and fraud has been an ongoing conversation in online higher ed, Kelton said sites like We Take Your Class change the game slightly.

“This is the first time I’ve seen a company that will take an entire class for you,” he said. “To me that says this is just the tip of an iceberg.”

What worries Kelton and others the most is the scale of online higher ed and, by extension, of the new online higher ed black market.

“The difference with something like wetakeyourclass.com is that if you’re going to pay someone to go to your 300-person psych 101 class, that person can only go to one exam at a time. That same expert, however, could take six, eight, 10, 12, online classes simultaneously,” Kelton said.

With the sheer number of students taking online classes, too, Johnson notes that if even one percent of students cheat, it is a significant number.

Zematis notes, however, that cheating can happen in face-to-face classes, too. Though he believes online classes need to be held to the same standard as in-person classes, he hopes the threat of sites like We Take Your Class will lead to innovation within online higher ed, not to over-regulation.

“We serve an adult population – our students just can’t afford to spend two evenings a week out taking a class, but they can take courses at 4 in the morning or after the kids go to bed. The biggest threat for us would be that there are laws passed that make it harder for those students to learn that way,” Zematis said. “We need to be taking a leadership role as far as making sure the students taking the courses are the students who registered and the students we are credentialing.”

 

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