An Online Cheating Economy

A very disturbing, but not really shocking, article titled "The New Cheating Economy" by Brad Wolverton this week on  

"...On any given day, thousands of students go online seeking academic relief. They are first-years and transfers overwhelmed by the curriculum, international students with poor English skills, lazy undergrads with easy access to a credit card. They are nurses, teachers, and government workers too busy to pursue the advanced degrees they’ve decided they need. The Chronicle spoke with people who run cheating companies and those who do the cheating. The demand has been around for decades. But the industry is in rapid transition. Just as higher education is changing, embracing a revolution in online learning, the cheating business is transforming as well, finding new and more insidious ways to undermine academic integrity...

There has always been cheating on assignments, papers and tests. There are industries on both sides to help someone cheat and ones to stop students from cheating or to catch them when they do cheat. A student who copies a paper from a source online can be caught by software ( and others) but it is much more difficult to catch someone who submits an original paper written and researched correctly by another student. That is what the article is talking about for the online learning environment, but the trend is far beyond buying a paper. 

"But in recent years, a new underground economy has emerged, offering any academic service a student could want. Now it’s not just a paper or one-off assignment. It’s the quiz next week, the assignment after that, the answers served up on the final. Increasingly, it’s the whole class. And if students are paying someone to take one course, what’s stopping them from buying their entire degree?"

There were stories decades ago about students paying another student to take an exam and even to take an entire class, but it was unusual and much harder to accomplish in a small, face-to-face class. Large lecture hall courses and online learning have made it easier, and companies have seen opportunity for profit.

I have seen a good number of companies and products over the past 16 years designed to verify the identity of online students. None seemed very easy to implement or foolproof. I imagine that side of the cheating industry will become more visible in this new academic year.

Collaborating Online 8 Years Later

I clicked on a post here that I wrote in 2008 while I was directing the Writing Initiative at Passaic County Community College. We were using etutoring for writing and were part of a consortium of colleges in the northeast. ( - part of the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium) We supplied tutors to support the service based on the amount of usage our students put into the platform and our students used it a lot. 

As part of our writing-intensive courses in the Writing Initiative, students could submit their work up to three times and received a reading and comments from one of the consortium writing tutors (generally higher ed instructors with at least a Masters degree).

PCCC does have labs and tutors for the ESL students and for students entering at a Basic Skills level (pre-college) but did not have a center for college-level students. That is how eTutoring was introduced. We did build a writing center as part of the Initiative, but this online collaboration was an important part of the project.

Some students and teachers still don't trust online courses, but those courses, etutoring and online collaboration are almost a necessity at this point for many schools to supplement face-to-face experiences. 

We saw many similarities between what we do on the ground, and what we do with writers in the computing cloud, and another aspect of this was online collaboration with students and with colleagues. 

Back in 2006, we were trying out Writeboard Since many of our colleagues had never used something like that before, I invited people to try out a collaborative page. That page still exists! If you go to the Collaborative Writing document that I started in 2008 at, you can still login using the password: collabwrite.  

Knowing how reluctant readers of blogs are to comment on posts (here's a post on another blog of mine about just that), I suspected that there was a good chance that the response to the would be underwhelming - and it was just that.

But 8 years have passed and using tools like Zoho and Google Docs for collaboration are more common and Writeboard seems primitive. I feel that also is the way wikis are viewed, though collaborative websites still aren't easy to do.

mobile sample

I use Dropbox as often as shared Google files. We have not gone "paperless" despite hearing that battlecry for about 25 years, but it is rare that I email a file or hand someone a paper document to read and make comments. Getting feedback from a larger group, keeping track of everyone’s copies, and maintaining one "final version" is really difficult if you're not collaborating online in the cloud.

With services like Dropbox, you share your file with several people at once, and they can leave comments on specific parts and maintain one version. 

Now, Dropbox Paper is another way to help teams create collaborative docs and share important information. They also have a new Paper mobile apps for iOS and Android that you can use for on-the-go access.

It is progress that online collaboration is much more common with researchers and writers who also share email, files and meet live with web conferencing.

You can ask people - perhaps your students - to upload files to your Dropbox even if they don't have an account.

I keep telling people to sign up for a free Dropbox account if only to protect important files (docs, photos, whatever) with automatic backup. Usually, people do it AFTER their hard drive crashes, which is like buying insurance after the accident.


Hey, Maybe Your Blog Could Be a Book

blog to bookIt's a dream/fantasy of many bloggers: that their blog can become a book - or maybe even a movie. I've thought about it, and I wrote a post about the idea on another blog of mine this month. Here is a version of that post:

When I started blogging in early 2006, blogging was already becoming pretty common. I started blogging as something to use both in my teaching at NJIT and as a way to get my ideas out there. I had been doing workshops and presentations on the still-new blogs, wikis and podcasts for a while and I was trying to get faculty at the university to incorporate them into their courses.

Then I was asked to do a presentation for business people on those topics. Though I was doing podcasts and had created a few wikis, I was not a blogger. One of my colleagues at NJIT, Tim Kellers, was my tech guru and he created a blogging platform for us to use in our presentation using software called Serendipity. Thus, Serendipity35, this blog about learning and technology, was born. And it's still going.

In 2004, the New Yorker had said that books by bloggers would become a cultural phenomenon, but I never gave that a thought in those days. Since that first blog, I have added 8 other blogs to my weekly writing. As a few friends like to remind me, "if you only channeled all that writing, you would have a few books by now."

Then came stories like that of Julie Powell and her blog about trying to cook the entire Julia Child cookbook in her New York apartment. PostSecret and Stuff White People Like are other blogs that became multiple incarnations of books, but Julie was the star student.  

Her original blog on is gone, but is archived on the great site. The blog began in 2002 as she cooked her way through Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." In 2005, it became a book, Julie and Julia:365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. In 2007, a film version was announced - the first major motion picture that started off as a blog.

Say what you will about the writing of Powell, she had an established readership and that is why a publisher knew that readership could translate to book sales. This is not new to publishing, TV or film - choose things (comic books, hit plays etc.) that have a built-in following and are a surer bet.

The film adaptation, directed by Nora Ephron, also titled Julie & Julia, was released in 2009. The film was actually based on both Powell's book and Julia Child's autobiography My Life in France. This was not a small, independent film. Amy Adams starred as Powell and Meryl Streep as Julia Child and Julia's husband Paul was played by Stanley Tucci.

But that is one blogger who got great deals out of many millions of bloggers. It is tough to find a number for how many blogs exist (active and archived) currently but just's cumulative total blogs in July 2016 surpassed 305.9 million blog accounts. That makes the odds about the same as winning the Power Ball lottery.

Yes, Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody got a book deal out of her blog (not the one that led to her best known screenplay for Juno though).

Another success story is Tim Ferriss, whose blog, the Four Hour Work Week, was listed at number one on the top 150 Management and Leadership Blogs.

In 2010, photographer Brandon Stanton started a project to create a photographic census of New York City and his blog version (and Facebook page) of Humans of New York became the book Humans of New York: Stories and was a bestseller.

All of these are why you can find lots of blog posts about turning your blog into a book. For example, look at and

I still haven't moved any of my blogs to the print (or film!) world. I could see my poetry project at Writing the Day as a poetry collection. I'd like to think that Weekends in Paradelle and One-Page Schoolhouse have enough posts to produce a collection of essays. The same might be true of the several thousands post on Serendipity35, but I realize that many of my posts are "dated" in the time they were written. Editing would be a major part of turning a blog into a book. I believe that, despite tales of the death of print, an actual book still holds a special, higher place in our culture than a website.

Publishers: contact me.


Degree-Planning Tools and Learning Advisors

road signOnly about half of all students who start college graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years. It doesn't help that completion rate that the path to degrees is less linear than ever. More than a third of students transfer at least once during their college years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Of those, nearly half change institutions more than once.
EDUCAUSE ELI published a new brief in its "7 Things" series on "Degree-Planning Tools" which discusses how some colleges are allowing students to design their own college experience. Working with advisors and based on their own research into academic, professional, personal and financial aspects of their career goal, they design a curriculum path.

I view this as a kind of adaptive learning on a larger scale, not just within a course.

Technology is playing a role. Tools can help guide students to move based on their strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and circumstances. I'm seeing these tools built into learning management systems. For example, Blackboard has MyEdu, Civitas Learning uses Degree Map, and Ellucian offers MyDegree. A newer player to me is Degree Compass which was acquired by Desire2Learn.

These tools fall under the category of predictive analytics, but I'm a believer that merely acquiring data won't make any positive changes without an intelligent way to apply it. I think this requires software paired with old-fashioned advising so that a student's goal and her academic career align. This is more than choosing the right courses and sequence. It is also about getting complementary experiences in internships, work experiences and professional networking. Those things probably won't come from software. 

A more human approach to this is perhaps the old-fashioned idea of having guidance counselors. They may come with new names. I have seen the title "learner advocate" used and most recently the odd "education sherpa" label used. "Sherpa" is Tibetan for "eastern people", and is an ethnic group from Nepal, high in the Himalayas. We know them as guides to explorers of the Himalayan region and expeditions to climb Mount Everest. In some cases, those guides do most of the serious work for inexperienced climbers. I wouldn't want to think that our educational guides would do much of the difficult work for students. 
The comparison has also been made to professional patient advocates who help people navigate the often-confusing medical system. This may be particularly important for students who are the first in their families to attend college and don't have natural access to people who can act as resources for academic decisions and guidance towards careers. 

Tech and the Liberal Arts

People in the edtech world always seem a bit surprised when they find out that I came from a liberal arts background. I was an English/Education undergrad, and my graduate work was in communications and media, and then in pedagogy. I am old enough that being there in the early days of computers in the classroom and pre-Internet, if you were interested in technology, you could get in "on the ground floor" no matter what class you taught. Yes, people expected the computer teacher to be a math or science major, but it didn't turn out that way in all cases.

That's why I am pleased to see articles about topics such as the digital humanities and a recent one on "Why tech industries are demanding more liberal arts graduates." 

"...While liberal arts degrees have been criticized in public by corporate officials, presidential candidates and others, college and university officials continue to laud the value of traditional training in the fields. Data from the American Association of Colleges and Universities shows that unemployment of liberal arts bachelor’s holders is only slightly higher than the national unemployment average of all degree holders — 5.4% to 4.6% respectively, and that long-term earning potential of liberal arts graduates exceeds that of graduates in professional fields by more than $2,000 annually.

Fields like military science and finance depend heavily on liberal arts training for its focus on communication and building teamwork, a concept EAB Senior Analyst Ashley Delamater says is becoming an attractive credential for tech development companies and Silicon Valley’s next wave of executive hiring.

It’s not going to be about radically reorganizing the liberal arts, but reorganizing to create a direct connection to jobs that need the liberal arts today. What are the potential jobs available to our students that they don’t even know they can apply for, and what are the markets that has a lot of openings where one or two courses can help you to add some technical skills to the leadership and liberal arts knowledge base earned in these majors.”