Money-for-answers websites trick UAE students into cheating, academic says

An education ethics expert from the United Arab Emirates said dozens of easily accessible “cash for answers” websites take advantage of learners taking shortcuts to success.

A study by Dr Zeenath Khan, professor of cyberethics and academic integrity at the University of Wollongong in Dubai, identified 34 rogue companies “aggressively” promoting so-called online contract cheating services.

Contract cheating occurs when a pupil or student asks someone else to complete their work for them, often in exchange for money.

From as little as $40 (Dh150) for an answer to an exam question to thousands of dollars for a 10,000 word report, a quick online search is enough to find a number of unscrupulous companies in UAE offering their services for cash.

Dr Khan said cutting down on homework could help solve the problem and the addiction to cheating often stems from parents helping with past projects.

The websites came up easily, repeatedly, and were clicked on by users on Google and Bing when the words “essay writing,” “homework writing,” or “ghost writing” in the UAE were entered.

Dr Zeenath Khan, University of Wollongong in Dubai

“The websites came up easily, repeatedly, and were clicked on by users on Google and Bing when the words ‘essay writing’, ‘homework writing’ or ‘ghost writing’ in the UAE were typed,” said said Dr. Khan.

“This is of great concern to all universities and institutions, as it means these sites are regularly visited and aggressively market their unethical services to students.”

In 2020, Dr. Khan helped establish the region’s first Center for Academic Integrity.

Based at the University of Wollongong in Dubai, it brings together educators, students and industry experts to promote honest and moral behavior in an academic setting.

Further review of school work required

Dr Khan said the way schools structure work in primary and secondary schools can play a big role in deterring people from turning to contract cheating later in life.

Limiting the amount of homework means teachers can monitor the work a child does during class, as parents often take the lead on projects at home but allow their children to take credit for the work.

“When we think of contract fraud, we tend to think of third parties as online services, but in fact often it can be a family member or friend who ends up assignments or projects for students,” she said.

“It’s a real problem because students then think it’s okay for someone else to do a project for them, which can turn into a habit of getting people to do their work.

“The way we structure work and projects in schools and universities needs to change to be more engaging and more easily monitored.”

Dr Khan said academic cheating websites brazenly advertise their services, with recent examples touting a “buy one essay, get one free during Ramadan”, which can attract students.

Legislation to combat academic fraud

In October last year, the UK government tabled an amendment to ban test mills, businesses that allow people to commission other people to complete academic work on their behalf for a fee.

The legislation, which was passed by Westminster last month, has now received the required royal approval to become law.

Now, universities and colleges will have a duty to make students understand that using a drafting mill means engaging with a criminal entity.

But Dr Khan said it was only part of a broader industry-wide effort to protect and promote academic integrity.

“The key step is to focus on the positive awareness campaign so that we have a change in behavior, outlook and expectations in the educational setting,” she said.

“We need to start this conversation at the earliest possible age, from the basic stages, and then develop it in primary and secondary classrooms through to higher education.

“If we do that, we won’t need the legislation.”

Knowing why learners cheat is crucial

Although several countries ban contract fraud services, experts agree that raising awareness is the path to change.

Dr. Thomas Lancaster, senior researcher at Imperial College London, has conducted several studies on academic integrity.

Through his research, he identified “thousands of student applications covering literally any academic subject”.

“There are many reasons why students engage in contract fraud,” he said.

“It’s often because of the pressure. They are busy working and cannot concentrate on their assessments. Sometimes they want to get a higher grade. Sometimes it’s just out of desperation.

The pandemic has caused a wave of cheating

During the pandemic, he said he saw a sharp increase in online requests for contract fraud, suggesting that students were taking advantage of the lack of online exam supervision.

“My own research found an increase of almost 200% with a site that students regularly use for help, often with exam-type questions posted with a request from the student to get the answers quickly. “

He said educating students early on the negative effects of cheating is necessary to curb the practice.

Dr. Lancaster said heavy advertising from online and in-person assignment providers can lead students to cheat who might not otherwise consider doing so.

‘I welcome the ban on test mills and contract cheat services promoting student services in the UK, but we cannot rely on the law alone,’ he said.

“We need to make sure assignments are engaging and structured in a way that students feel they are getting value from their learning and achievement.”

Updated: May 3, 2022, 3:36 p.m.

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