Taking the worry out of homework
Here is the dilemma: tomorrow you have a history test and a 1,000-word English essay due. There is little time - either you bury your nose in history books, or you start your essay. What do you do?
Earlier this month, a French businessman set up a website to solve this problem - get someone to do your homework for you.
The website, Faismesdevoirs.com (domyhomework.com), offered to help students do homework of any kind - from writing an essay to solving a mathematical equation - at a price.
Students could buy homework answers from the website by e-mailing or faxing the questions, and the answers would come back with detailed explanations within a few days.
More than 10,000 students signed up even before the website launched on March 5. But, if students were all for it, parents, teachers and educationalists were outraged.
So were French education authorities, which accused the website of unashamedly commercialising education.
Amid public outcry, Faismesdevoirs.com shut down after just one day of operations. But, elsewhere, online tutoring and the homework-help industry are flourishing.
Transtutor, an online tutoring company headquartered in India, charges junior students US$3 for each question and up to US$12 for a 'tough question' for university undergraduate or post-graduate students.
US company Homework Tutoring, on the other hand, only gives quotes for prices after receiving the questions and apprising them of their difficulty level.
These companies claim they hire experienced teachers - and even university professors - as tutors in order to provide quality education for students, assuring parents that they can solve problems children face getting through a competitive schooling system.
They also say they are not spoon-feeding answers to the students. Their argument is that they show students how to solve problems.
Homework, they argue, is time-consuming and repetitive, and by paying someone else to do it, the students save valuable time that might be used more constructively.
However, teachers and educationalists who oppose such websites say students are paying to stay ignorant.
The purpose of homework, they say, is to improve the abilities and skills of students and reinforce the knowledge they have acquired in class.
They also argue that paying others to do homework is no different from cheating. It is morally wrong, and it is not fair to students who spend a lot of time doing homework themselves.
Some point out such paid homework help goes against the principle of equal educational opportunities and eventually widens the gap between the rich and the poor. Well-off youngsters have an even greater head start at school as their homework is done or polished by professionals, helping them on their way to the top universities.
Meanwhile, disadvantaged students, who already have limited access to learning resources such as broadband internet and after-school tutors, will likely find it increasingly difficult to get places in good universities.
In Hong Kong, the tutoring culture is particularly strong, but seeking help with homework online has yet to take off - at least not among secondary school students. Ah Fung, a Form Five student studying in Sha Tin who preferred not to disclose his full name, said he does not need such help. 'I copy my classmates' homework. It's free, and if I hand in a flawless essay one day, my teachers will be suspicious because they know my writing is not that good. Homework is not important; all that matters are exams, and you can't pay others to do those for you.'
But Jennifer, 20, a Year Two university student who also asked not to be named in full, saw value in the new services.
'This would be very useful. I might use it if I really needed someone to help me. Sometimes you just don't have to time to finish all the assignments and papers on time.'