A popular website and app is making it easy for university students in South Africa to cheat on tests and exams when writing at home.
The issue was recently brought to the attention of MyBroadband after a source at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) reported a suspected mass cheating incident from 2020.
According to the source, a lecturer had noticed that between 200-300 students had answered questions in an applied mathematics paper in the same way, suggesting that they had all drawn their answers from a single source.
The lecturer suspected Chegg – a popular tutoring platform that assists students in getting answers to assignment questions on-demand – was to blame.
What followed was a drawn-out disciplinary process during which the lecturer had to prove each of the students was cheating.
Wits confirmed that cheating incidents of this nature had occurred at the university in 2020, but said the extent of these contraventions were not as severe as claimed by our source.
“The University became aware of some students used online resources and platforms to assist them in answering assessments contravening assessment requirements and University rules,” Wits said.
“These matters have been duly processed in terms of the Rules for Student Discipline by the University’s Legal Office,” it added.
It is not the only Wits facing a problem with cheating in online tests.
UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola told MyBroadband that the university had noted an increase in the number of cases of academic dishonesty – which included cheating on tests and exams – referred to the Legal Services & Secretariat department between 2019 and 2020.
“The university has found that in some of these cases university test and/or exam questions were loaded to the Chegg website and answers were provided by industry experts and submitted by students as their own work,” Moholola said.
“These answers were sometimes shared amongst students,” he added.
The Chegg platform can be accessed via the web or an app, and is designed to help users get assistance with homework questions within minutes through textbook-based solutions, expert questions and answer chats, video explanations, and practice problems.
It offers products for which it charges users a monthly subscription fee, which includes its Chegg Study option at $14.95 (R218) per month.
This package allows users to ask Chegg’s subject experts questions by submitting a photo of their homework or assignment questions.
This gives them quick access to in-depth answers to complex questions which would not be typically freely available on the Internet.
Chegg claims that the answers can be provided in as little as 30 minutes.
The secret to this capability lies in its 70,000-strong freelance experts based out of India.
These individuals are equipped with degrees in many advanced disciplines – including engineering, mathematics, and computer science – and are available 24/7 to attend to queries.
The company claims the platform is not intended to be used for cheating, and said it abides by an honour code which holds users to account for abuse of the platform.
“Misuse of Chegg’s services can have serious consequences, up to and including being banned from our platforms or having an investigation opened by your institution,” the company stated.
It offers training institutions the ability to submit takedown requests for intellectual property as well as to request data for an investigation into cheating.
Moholola said that Chegg does abide by its honour code, and once questions had been identified by a lecturer as being part of the exam, the company has assisted UCT in removing the questions and identifying those students who have uploaded or accessed the answers online.
The honour code does not appear to have scared off the cheaters, however.
One study has claimed there was a notable increase in usage of Chegg since the COVID-19 pandemic spurred a major shift to remote learning.
It found that the number of questions posted under five different STEM disciplines on Chegg had increased by almost 200% between April 2020 and August 2020.
These included questions from subjects which form part of Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Physics, and Chemistry.
“Given the number of exam style questions, it appears highly likely that students are using this site as an easy way to breach academic integrity by obtaining outside help,” the study said.
“Students have also been observed posting a series of requests one after another, most often where the questions are multiple choice or short answer format.”
Worryingly, the report said it would be very hard to trace instances of cheating back to Chegg.
“Chegg do not provide the facility to trace requests directly back to an individual academic provider, or even a country of origin. On occasion it may be possible to work this out, but the way in which data is shown on the site makes this difficult,” the study said.
This was because certain posts contained photos or screenshots of a problem that was likely to have been encountered in a standard textbook used by many institutions.
According to a report from Forbes, cheating with Chegg has become so commonplace in the US that students have started referring to it as “chegging”.
The publication had interviewed 52 students from multiple universities who used Chegg Study.
Out of these participants, only four did not admit to using the platform for cheating on tests.
In one notable case mentioned in the report, answers to an online exam at Texas A&M University were submitted by hundreds of students more quickly than it would have taken them to read the questions.
With the COVID-19 pandemic limiting in-person tests and examinations, educational institutions will have to consider measures to guard against cheating among students writing from home.
These measures will have to take the availability of platforms like Chegg into account.
Wits said it had well established mechanisms and methods which could assist in the identification of cheating and other forms of academic misconduct.
It added that these had been refined in light of the fact that some assessments were held online and outside of its precincts.
However, it did not elaborate on how exactly these worked, or whether it used any software solution to curb cheating.
UCT’s Moholala said that monitoring students during tests and exams has been a challenge but lecturers were being innovative with their approaches.
“Some have opted to get students to sign an honour code while others produce multiple iterations of a test or exam and students are unaware that their peers are answering questions with different values making it possible to identify potential cases of cheating.”
“While it has been difficult, lecturers continue to learn and refine their approaches to ensure that the integrity of the tests, exams and degrees are maintained,” Moholala added.