Teachers are the best guard against cheating

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 January, 2011, 12:00am

What is more disturbing - the fact that Hong Kong students are hiring writers to cheat instead of writing their own papers, or the fact that such plagiarism agencies now proudly advertise their services all over town? The recent news that more and more Hong Kong students are heading to writers-for-hire is indeed alarming. But a bigger and more troubling question is: why can they get away with it?

Ever since homework was first assigned, students have tried to cheat. Originally, it was simply copying answers from a friend. In recent years, however, technology and the internet have opened the floodgates of academic fraud. There's gadget cheating - abusing anything from calculators to iPods during tests to communicate answers. There's cut-and-paste cheating - plagiarising from the internet and more specifically, Wikipedia. And now, it seems, there's buy-an-essay cheating.

For as little as HK$500 per page, an undergraduate can buy an essay from any number of companies online. The essays are written by professionals, often individuals located overseas, for the specific assignment. The essay quality will be high, students will be satisfied, and the job will be completed with no delays, the websites say. In short, these companies make cheating as easy as ordering something from Amazon.

This new industry presents a huge problem for Hong Kong teachers. Traditionally, plagiarism came in the form of cut-and-paste cheating, a phenomenon that is so common, most university professors are forced to scan every essay into the anti-plagiarism software Turnitin. However, Turnitin only catches essays which contain large amounts of plagiarised material. There's nothing it can do about a truly original essay which was not written by the student. As a result, this new industry is redefining modern cheating. Not surprisingly, here in Hong Kong, the world capital of supply and demand, this industry is flourishing.

What is surprising, however, is the fact that any of our students has had success using this method, begging the question: where is the teacher in all of this? Experienced teachers can tell straight away whether an essay has been written by someone other than the student.

So what does this all say about our teachers and our schools? To me, this means we have a problem. We need more experienced teachers. We need smaller class sizes so that the teachers know each student personally and are familiar with each student's writing style. We need to create an atmosphere where this type of cheating cannot happen because it would be detected straight away.

Yes, it's upsetting that so many students in Hong Kong do not believe in the academic honour code. Yes, it is disturbing that there are now entire companies that cater to this. But, we also need to look more closely at the enablers of the situation - the teachers and the schools.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. kelly@kellyyang.com