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Is there a plague of cheating in NSW high schools?

Jack Goodman

Jack Goodman

Jun 9, 2015

Is there a plague of cheating in NSW high schools? The SMH would have us think so with its report over the weekend, headlined "Cheating 'endemic' in NSW high schools." Jack Goodman tells you four reasons why last weekend's news story is troubling for education.

I want to make it clear that the activities described in the article are reprehensible and indicate inexcusable conduct on the part of both the buyers and sellers of school assignments. 

However, the article itself has also generated a huge amount of reader feedback, indicating the SMH is onto a winner with its ongoing reporting into these cheating scandals. The reader feedback is justified - it's human nature to feel a sense of outrage when others purchase or otherwise unfairly or illegally obtain an advantage in any sort of competition let alone one as central as academics.

So why should readers feel somewhat duped by the SMH's reporting on the topic?

Reason 1. The term "endemic" in the headline, and the thrust of the entire article, imply that there is a plague of cheating. In fact, the only numbers cited in the article -- from the Board of Studies -- suggest anything but an epidemic -- just 21 breaches of examination rules and malpractice in 2014 out of about 70,000 students who sat the HSC.

The problem may well be bigger than that, but the article focuses instead on florid language to make its case. The market for essays is "flourishing," while "essay factories are on hiring sprees" and teachers are at their "wit's end" fighting the scourge.

The story ups the ante by pointing the finger specifically at the highest-performing selective public high schools. Apparently students from James Ruse, the top performing high school in the state, are selling their high-scoring essays online, while those at other selective schools, including Normanhurst Boys, are buying them up. If only they could have found a way of including top-shelf independent schools in the mix, they would have had a trifecta.

Reason 2. Why are these schools - and suburbs such as Cabramatta and Chatswood - specifically named? Because "the problem is most acute in the Advanced English course, where some students have complained of being forced to take the advanced course over the standard alternative despite being stronger in the science and maths fields." The article does not say so explicitly, and the reporter obviously did not find anyone willing to go on the record to say so, but the story being raised is again one of hyper-competitive Asian-Australian students going to extreme measures to compete academically. This is a stereotype that is simply not supported by any evidence in the article. However it is also a subject that gets annual attention in the media every time selective school admissions and HSC results are reported, underscoring that some cultures value academic success and hard work more than others.

Private companies and individual tutors are offering assignments for sale in a cheating culture that is flourishing in NSW high schools.
Any cheating is reprehensible, but is it fair to the public to label 21 breaches out of 70,000 NSW students as an "endemic"? Image source: Sydney Morning Herald


Reason 3. The SMH would have us believe the cheating it has uncovered is something brand new. In fact, this kind of academic fraud has been around for centuries. All that has happened is that the internet has made it easier for buyers and sellers to find each other and to conduct business in broad daylight. Whether we are talking about illegal file sharing, knock-offs of luxury goods, or identity theft, there's no doubt the internet has made it easier for people with bad intent to "scale up" their activities. Which leads to...

Reason 4.  It would be easy to conclude from this report and the steady stream of similar stories of which it forms a part, that when it comes to education and the internet, the two just don't mix. Education is pure, clean and honest, and the 'net is dirty, commercial, often unethical, and as likely to cheat you as to enlighten you. This does a tremendous disservice to the thousands of individuals and scrupulous organisations that work to deliver ethical and professional online learning experiences. As the founder of one such organisation - Studiosity - I find it endlessly frustrating that mainstream media shows next to no desire to understand what organisations such as ours deliver, and how by writing what they do, they do untold damage to an emerging sector of the education economy that is playing a critical role in advancing the education and skills of Australia's future workforce. 

The printing press was new EduTech in 1440, and was criticized for 'making writers lazy'. Today, are online tools still criticized and feared in education? Image source: old-print.com

If you only read the SMH (and similar mainstream media) you would think "online tutoring" is either some form of cheating or a new form of video-based learning that saves students from attending lectures.

True online study help is nothing of the sort; instead, it delivers a live, one-to-one learning experience online, often on-demand, so that students can get help right when they need it in order to "get unstuck" and continue their learning.

The founding principal of our organisation (and I assume all other ethical tutors) is to help students learn, and to never just give answers. We've been doing so for more than a decade, during which time we've helped more than 1-million students learn key concepts and have their own "aha!" moments.

Every year the SMH is taken to court by people who believe they have been libelled and had their reputations damaged by its reporters. Occasionally the SMH loses and publishes lengthy apologies in the newspaper (and also pays money to plaintiffs.) Does this mean that libel is "endemic" to the Herald's reporting? I don't think so, and I wish reporters and editors would be more careful with the words they choose to describe our sector. Because words matter, and accusations of "endemic" dishonesty shouldn't be tossed about lightly.


About the author:
Jack Goodman 
President, Friends of Libraries Australia
Executive Chair and Founder, studiosity.com
Jack has over two decades experience working in Australia's education sector to grow community engagement and build stronger local economies. He is the Founder and Executive Chair of Studiosity, a Sydney-based organisation helping innovative universities and pathways colleges transition to digital education. Jack was appointed as President of Friends of Libraries Australia (FOLA) in 2014, and has a bachelor's degree from Princeton and a Masters in Philosophy from Cambridge University where he was a Marshall Scholar. Just recently, Jack has been published in The Conversation, Australian Policy Online, and the Australian Library Journal.


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