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July 31, 2006 / conceptbin

Why I Like Online Paper Mills

Barclay Littlewood is doing a service to UK higher education. He is the owner of and his experience of student writing is rather different than that of most university lecturers – it has bought him a Lamborghini.

He is the star of a Guardian article about essays for sale online. Littlewood has become rich by taking advantage of two things: The web and universities’ tendency to want more money for less tutoring. This means larger student numbers, less contact with instructors and more sense of anonymity – all of which fosters the sense that no one really cares about the individual’s work, and that they won’t notice a bit of plagiaristic pilfering here, a little cheating there.

What is to be done? Well, Littlewood’s challenge to the higher education establishment seems about to be met with decisive action: “Vice-chancellors, university managers and senior academics were expected to attend the conference in the autumn which would look at all aspects of online essays” says the article.

I, for one, am relying on Barclay Littlewood to get these fine people to do more than just look.

Here’s what I’d say if I was invited to that conference: If you don’t want students cheating on their coursework, combine the consistent use of plagiarism-detection software with an emphasis on process-based learning and smaller class sizes. It’s simply harder to fool a teacher who knows the student and can differentiate between improved performance and a sudden injection of paid-for coursework.

Every university wants to be the last to install plagiarism-detection software. It’s expensive, not just because of the subscription costs, but because first they’ll have to set up an electronic submission system for the entire institution. A smart vice-chancellor will have other universities do this first, then adopt whichever systems prove to be the least expensive and most efficient. However, the setup costs are the least of the trouble: When the system is online and working the universities will find that staff quickly get overwhelmed with paperwork, plagiarism hearings multiply, and the student-retention rate will go down while the plagiarism-rate skyrockets. Neither is a good thing, because it can get you into trouble in the league tables.

Moreover, this technical solution would still leave Barclay Littlewood in business.

With plagiarism-detection systems, his estimated £200 million market would perhaps shrink but not go away, because it would become prohibitively expensive to write essays that would not get caught. Cheap, in this business, means mass-produced, with identical components that the plagiarism filters would easily sniff out. Bespoke services would still have a viable product to sell, but the cheaper outfits selling the same essays over and over would soon land so many students in trouble that they would soon get a toxic reputation.

Higher prices for reliably unique essays would mean that it would stop making economic sense for most students to buy them, except in large classes with high-stakes final essays.

By contrast, in courses with diverse assignments that are specific to the material (and not repeated year-to-year), buying coursework quickly stops making economic sense. For example, if a student in my Media Theory course were to hire a papermill to write all the marked essays, this is what it would cost according to the Guardian: Assuming the charge is a laughably cheap £30 per 250 words, four 1,500-word essays would cost a total of £720. For all this the student still has to sit a 2 hour exam on the key texts of the course. In order to earn a final mark of 60% (the bottom of the 2:1 range) the student would have to score a cumulative 65% on coursework, and 45% or more on the final exam where all the questions assume a working familiarity with the texts covered in the essay-assignments. In short, to get a comfortable mid-2:1 score while scraping a pass on the exam, the student would need to purchase essays that average a 71% score. More likely, unless the student does well on the exam (itself a set of essay-questions) s/he would end up paying £720 for a 2:2 mark in one course. And that’s just 30 credits out of 120 for the year.

Value for money it ain’t.

My point here is simple: If 60% of students now resort to cheating in some form, it is time to change the game. The responsible alternative is to assign coursework that emphasizes process, includes a variety of assignments, and does not put all the pedagogical eggs in the basket of one final essay – possibly using other, less easily-bought means of assessment than essays.

Papermills might actually prove beneficial if the provoke some novel innovations in university teaching. Along with the garden-variety cut/paste plagiarism from online sources, coursework-peddlers are the predictable byproduct of universities’ own “pack ’em in, charge a premium” attitude to education. We simply must get a bit more creative in the kinds of activities, assignments and methods of evaluation that make up coursework – at least something other than an essay around Easter time.

Who knows? Perhaps Barclay Littlewood and his fellow paper-pushers will make us a bit less predictable, and a bit more playful.


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