Social media changes face of cheating

DAVID White advertises his tutoring business on websites such as Gumtree but he says too often students get the wrong idea.

He is prepared to help university and VCE students develop their ideas, correct their grammar and tighten their writing. But he refuses to do their work for them.

Yet students still arrive for their tutoring sessions and dump piles of books on his desk, assuming he will write their assignments.

Mr White was one of many readers to express concern about academic integrity after The Age last week published reports on cheating and academic misconduct at Australian universities, pointing to ''online essay mills'' that are proliferating on social media sites.

Nine Deakin University students were disciplined when they were caught cheating earlier this year.

In response to The Age's reports, one academic said university staff were also involved in buying academic work.

''More than that, entire theses, backed by reasonable-looking research, have been available for generations,'' the academic said.

Another correspondent who works as a tutor said students were ''constantly'' caught cheating but universities often failed to crack down on misconduct.

At the extreme end of the responses was a claim that one student paid a proxy to attend lectures, write essays and even sit exams.

The accuracy of such claims is difficult to verify, but the scale of the response reflects the depth of concern in the academic community about cheating. Most of the emails The Age received noted the prevalence of cheating but said buying academic assignments was not a recent phenomenon.

What is new, however, is the way these ''essay mills'' are reaching out to customers through social media. These businesses rely on students' stress, laziness or lack of confidence in their own ability.

But the assignments these mills churn out can be far poorer than the advertised claims suggest, as one student who shared her experience with The Age found out.

Under pressure to submit an assignment she resorted to buying an essay online. The trouble began for her when the business threatened to expose the transaction to her university once she refused to pay for the substandard assignment.

She ended up paying, but wrote the assignment herself at the last minute.

For students who succumb to buying assignments the process seems all too easy. Users of Chinese-language social media sites, including Weibo, say they only have to update their status with something remotely related to study and they will be approached by another account holder offering to write assignments in return for cash.

Wollongong University academic writing lecturer Ruth Walker said the number of students caught cheating was not rising. But she believed online essay mills were becoming more organised.

''There's always been cases where people have written essays for other people. The problem is when it becomes organised like a business,'' she says. ''It's easier to approach and attract students … through social media.''

These essay mills are preying on a vulnerable and isolated target - international students who often struggle with high living costs, poor English skills, limited working hours and often shabby accommodation.

Deakin University Student Association general secretary Owen Wrangle said international students were under intense pressure and needed more support.

''International students are often under enormous pressure and studying in a foreign country poses obvious challenges,'' he said.

He added there were no winners if universities failed to support international students. ''International students studying with inadequate support is not beneficial for the students involved or the academic standing of the university.''

b.preiss@theage.com.au

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