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Online learning leaving students more vulnerable to essay mills

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has warned that students are more likely to use essay mills following the switch to online learning. 

The warning came with updated guidance from the QAA following the nationwide shift to online learning and assessments.

The guidance stressed the importance of personal tutoring and academic mentoring, which is “critical to the development of students as independent learners”. 

The updates also placed a renewed emphasis on providing support from students from diverse cultural backgrounds, who may require additional support and language skills. 

The QAA noted that “innovative and adaptable” essay mills have been advertising discounts and suggesting that they “could fill a gap left by a lack of supervision”.

The move to completely online learning due to COVID-19 saw a reduction in the levels of one-to-one and small group teaching for many students.

The personal tutor and a student relationship is going to be increasingly key, because certainly for the next academic year we won’t be back to full service on the physical campus

– Michael Draper

The QAA have advised universities to improve their detection of cheating in a physically distanced environment, as the guidance acknowledges that a small proportion of students will always try and cheat.

Michael Draper, professor of legal studies at Swansea University and a member of the QAA’s academic advisory group, said: “There are companies that provide proctoring services that act like remote invigilation… but these come at a cost.

“The personal tutor and a student relationship is going to be increasingly key, because certainly for the next academic year we won’t be back to full service on the physical campus, therefore the one-to-one relationship will be key to ensuring students feel they can succeed.”

The guidance suggested that universities should ensure that staff are provided with the right resources and time to combat increased use of essay mills to cheat. 

Professor Draper added: “These misconduct cases can take an enormous amount of time, in relation to interviewing students, getting evidence and managing that through an academic misconduct panel.”

Online learning is set to a permanent fixture for many universities as part of the “blended learning” policy that has been adopted. 

The University of Warwick recently outlined their plans for the 2020/21 academic year, which included all classes with more than 25 students being moved online.

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