Sam Smoot: UCLA needs clearer universitywide guidelines regarding use of homework solution sites
(Jessie Hui/Daily Bruin)
By Sam Smoot
May 29, 2018 11:46 p.m.
In today’s cutthroat academic environment where university students are forced to contemplate which friends they would sacrifice to the volcano, it’s no wonder students often turn to online repositories to ensure good grades on their assignments.
GitHub, Quizlet, Course Hero, Chegg – the options are many. While the differences in the format of these sites make them suitable for finding answers to different types of questions, they all share one main feature: Professors almost certainly consider them cheating.
To many students, the line between the appropriate use of online resources and violating the academic dishonesty policy is less clear. While the direct use of answers from these sites is presenting another’s work as your own – plagiarism, in other words – sites like Chegg offer detailed step-by-step solutions, and students who reference them may feel they are simply using online resources to better understand their homework and learn strategies for solving problems.
Many courses also have solution manuals and readers available for a price, and it can be hard to find a difference between these and other pay-to-play services like Chegg and Course Hero.
Things are even more complicated when it comes to posting solutions online for others to see. In those cases, the student posting their answers has not copied anyone else, and since the solutions are a product of their own work, they are theoretically within their free speech rights to post the material to the public.
Some UCLA faculty have sought to mitigate this by banning students from posting to these sites altogether, as it is difficult to catch every person who obtains solutions from these sites, especially if they submit answers that deviate slightly from the original source. But the university does not have a standard policy about referencing other students’ posted solutions.
As the answer to this question is far from clear, UCLA needs to make a policy governing the use of online resources that is consistent across different classes and departments. Otherwise, students may find that something they are allowed to do in one course will land them in the dean’s office in another.
Many UCLA instructors have strong feelings about enforcing a no-posting policy. Richard Korf, a professor and undergraduate vice chair of the computer science department, has taken up including this as part of his academic dishonesty policy. He argued that students’ solutions are derived from instructor’s questions – their intellectual property – and therefore students are not within their rights to post them to third parties without permission from their instructor.
“I added the policy as soon as I found out I could,” Korf said.
He added that while he encourages other computer science instructors to adopt similar stances, there is no departmentwide policy on the issue.
Paul Eggert, a senior lecturer in the computer science department, said the widespread use of online solutions is the biggest issue he faces as an instructor. Eggert teaches several courses every computer science student must take to graduate. He said he worries the culture of copying online solutions will have a negative effect on both the educational efficacy of the university and the morals of students.
The argument is that the widespread acceptance of these sites is normalizing cheating. Korf said he is particularly disturbed by the idea that would-be honest students may fall into bad practice because they feel they must level the playing field in courses graded on a curve.
Students have a less apocalyptic view. Anish Gosala, a second-year mechanical engineering student, believes the issue of whether or not these sites provide a competitive advantage is more complicated.
“Students who have online solutions essentially guarantee their grade for that assignment,” Gosala said. “But in the long run, they don’t really know how to apply what they learned, since they are basically running on the solutions.”
Gosala sees the subscriptions required for certain sites like Chegg and Course Hero as sources of inequity, as students who are able to pay will have more resources than those who are not. He said that as long as these sources are available, some students will take advantage of them, adding he believes the only viable way to combat this is for professors to consistently come up with new problems.
Both Eggert and Korf say coming up with new questions for homework assignments has become part of the job. The main issue, Korf said, is that it takes substantial time and effort to generate effective new problems. Eggert added he thinks the quality of these newly generated questions suffers because he is not able to tinker with them after observing student performance.
The problem of students referencing posted solutions should be addressed universitywide. The current patchwork of policies for posting solutions varies from course to course and inevitably results in students crossing the line, sometimes without their knowledge. Clearly defining whether posting material qualifies as academic dishonesty wouldn’t just clarify what students can and can’t do, but would also set an expectation for whether instructors have a responsibility to create new question sets each quarter.
The discussion about the role these repositories should play is far from certain. But until UCLA makes up its mind about these resources, we can be certain students will use them – with or without professors’ permission.