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Cheating 2.0

As a faculty member1, I get email from the Faculty for which I teach with all sorts of information about the goings-on on campus. Usually it’s about faculty meetings or special guest speakers or reminders to submit your grades. But an item in a recent email update really caught my attention:

Student Scam Alert*
A new website offers to steal students extra time for writing papers.  Corrupted-Files.com creates corrupted files which look like ordinary word, excel and powerpoint documents. Students can email these files instead of their own papers to instructors. As the site promises, “It  will take your professor several hours if not days to notice your file  is “unfortunately” corrupted. Use the time […] wisely and finish that
paper!!!” See www.corrupted-files.com

So, of course, I had to check it out.

Some of the best lines from the site [direct quotations from their site in bold]:

  • “Plagiarism is not the answer to procrastination. –  Corrupted-Files.com is!” – Right. Because plagiarism would be wrong.
  • “We guarantee and stand by our product!” – So, if your prof manages to open the file and find out you are a lying cheater and you get kicked out of school and have an “academic dishonesty” notation on your transcript forever, you get your $4.95 back? w00t!
  • “Q: Is this cheating? A: It’s a fine line… It’s basically just a good excuse vs. outright cheating but even though you are handing in your own work, you are getting an unfair advantage so by that definition, yes you are cheating. Please ask your professors for an extension before you use a corrupted file. This is meant to be used as a last resort, a one time thing, not a crutch! Everyone is entitled to a second chance, but not a third.” – Um, if you ask your profession for an extension before using a corrupted file – presumbly they are turning down the request for an extension and that’s why you’ve turned to this form of cheating – and then you hand in a corrupted file, isn’t your prof going to be a wee bit suspicious?
  • “Q: Is making excuses ok? A: Of course not! Just be honest with people, we all drop the ball sometimes. It’s not the end of the world to use an excuse once, but twice… well, then you need to get your sh*t together or you’re gonna be pumping my gas!” – “Just be honest with people” – that’s rich. “Just be honest with people… and email them a corrupted file that you are claiming is the assignment you haven’t written yet.  You know, honest.”

The site’s tagline is “Keep This Site A Secret.”1  But I see no need to listen to people who profit off of cheating, so I’m blogging it for all the world to see!  Also, I have a question for all you techies – if a student emails me a corrupted file, is there anyway for me to tell if they bought it off this site (or corrupted some file that wasn’t their actual assignment)?

1Technically I am considered faculty, even though I’m the underpaid, underemployed, no job security kind of faculty. Go sessionaling!

  1. this footnote is just a test []

9 Responses to Cheating 2.0

  1. gillian says:

    If I were really that desperate I'd probably figure out how to corrupt a file myself (in case there were some way that my prof could tell that the file came from that site). On the other hand it just would be easier to write the damn paper.

  2. Fire Hydrant says:

    I have no idea how they go about corrupting the files to make them unopenable, whether they have one or multiple corrupted files, how much survives (e.g. originating Micro$oft software version), or whether they have you upload something for them to corrupt, so I can't tell you how easy or hard it would be to prove. The latter could be tricky.

    There's a built-in assumption that you'll send an e-mail asking for another version. Not doing so would be a particularly stress-inducing response.

    If you open a word file in a hex editor, the content is visible, usually (based on small sample size) in the last 25% of the file (o.d.d.l.y.,. .w.i.t.h. .p.e.r.i.o.d.s. .b.e.t.w.e.e.n. .t.h.e. .c.h.a.r.a.c.t.e.r.s.). If you see content resembling what you'd expect, it may be legitimately corrupted. If you see something completely unrelated, such as Lorem Ipsum, it's probably deliberately corrupted. If you see garbage, there's no telling. The rest of the file is mainly headers, style stuff, version, etc., and should still display sensible words (e.g. names of fonts) periodically in a hex editor. I think the Word version and title are stored in plain text, visible without a hex editor.

    I don't know what the new .docx files look like. If they're zipped xml, changing a few bytes could easily destroy a legitimate file, and you'd see little to nothing in a hex editor in a perfectly working file. Perhaps you should do an experiment or two if the need arises.

  3. drbethsnow says:

    I guess the best solution is to make sure I open up all the files right when I receive them to make sure they are openable and if they aren't, then email the student to tell them to send it again. That way they wouldn't get the extra days to write the assignment.

    Or I could tell them that they have to copy and paste the text of the assignment into the email in addition to submitting the word doc so that I know the assignment actually exists….

  4. Paul (Erika's!) says:

    Some thoughts:
    – One thing to note is that the corrupted file would be the same size as the actual paper. So a student handing in a corrupted file that's 45k, then a proper file that's 75k should be a cause for concern.
    – You can look at the “last saved” date on the file. It should be before the date the project was due.
    – Ask students to submit the word doc AND a *.txt text version of what they're submitting (you could even have them put that in the body of the email if you wanted)

    If I were you though, I'd just tell the students outright “I know about this website, I will know if you use it. Uncorrupted files are your responsibility, not mine.” That'll put the fear into 'em.

  5. drbethsnow says:

    Hey Paul! How's Seattle treating ya?

    This cheater site has apparently thought of the file size thing – you can order a “10 page Word doc” or a “15 slide PowerPoint” or whatever size you want and they will give you on of the appropriate size. I hadn't thought of the “last saved” date and I really like the idea of haivng them put the assignment into the body of the email! I'm totally doing that! I hate treating students as if they are potential cheaters, but I'd also hate to be stuck dealing with a corrupted file and not knowing if they are cheating or just bad with computers.

  6. Kalev says:

    Really, UBC should provide a good dropbox-type of software that not only has deadlines but also checks for file openability. Something outside of Vista, I mean, not that Vista checks for file corruption. Plus I've heard people have difficulty figuring out how to use the Vista dropbox.

    I think it's a little much to ask people initially to paste their assignments into their emails PLUS attach them. Wouldn't it be simpler to simply check you can open the attachments and THEN ask for the (hopefully) few assignments as in-email text for those people whose files won't open? I mean seriously, how many unopenable attachments have you ever received?

    I think you have to accept, as an instructor, that some people cheat and honestly, you are never going to catch all of the cheating that happens. Allowing the existence of sites like these to pre-emptively erode your trust in students is not the answer.

    People live up AND down to expectations, and if their instructors all expect them to cheat, I don't think that sets up a very positive environment for learning. I mean, where does it end? Do you require TurnItIn submission from every student on every assignment? Do you stop using online environments at all because they're so difficult to monitor?

    I realise that if people have legitimately done their assignments, copying and pasting them into their email submissions is not a big deal (as in, it's hardly going to require tremendous effort on their part or be technically all that tricky). But it's the principle of the thing–you are proposing to require this solely because you've found out about this nasty site, not because this type of cheating has been an issue for you in the past. And what of the people (and you know there will be several) who don't fully read the instructions and attach their assignments but forget to copy and paste the contents into the email? I mean, sure, you can go all hardcore and be like, “Well then they didn't read and follow the instructions correctly!” but honestly, if that's the only thing they miss, is that worth being strict about? Does that improve learning and their mastery of the material? But given the assumption you're going to be operating under, the people who legitimately forget to do this extra step are going to be potential cheaters if their files don't open for you.

    Some people's files are going to legitimately get/be corrupted or unopenable occasionally–I don't think these people should have to suffer under a cloud of suspicion of cheating simply because a very few other people are assholes. Innocent until proven guilty. Better 100 guilty people go free than 1 innocent be wrongly jailed. That's the foundation of our legal system for a very good reason. While it means some malfeasance goes unpunished, ultimately it protects people like you and me who actually don't cheat.

    And as much as I enjoy being righteously indignant and all, “I will smote all evildoers!”, at the end of the day I prefer believing the best of people, not the worst. And my feeling is you do, too.

  7. drbethsnow says:

    I'm thinking that it wouldn't set as much of a negative tone if it's positioned more like “to protect yourself in case of possible computer glitches, copy and paste the text into the email, that way there won't be any questions” rather than “I think you are all cheaters.” It is really easy to copy and paste and if someone doesn't read the instructions and doesn't listen to the instructions in class, well, I really do think that is their own fault.

    I don't want to punish someone who has the misfortune of a true corrupted file, but it's also unfair to those who do their assignments on time to let cheaters win, so if there is a way to separate out cheaters from non-cheaters, I'm for that.

    Also, even if you open the file right away and emailing the students back saying “File corrupted, please re-send,” they can still buy themselves a day by saying “I didn't check my email until the next day,” which is reasonable, as not everyone checks email twice a day.

  8. Kalev says:

    I thought everyone checked their email twice a minute with their iPhones!

  9. Stacy says:

    I received a few corrupted papers when I was a TA. I e-mailed the student back and told them I would need a hard-copy the same day (papers were usually due the same day as class). If I remember correctly, there was one paper I never got.

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