About Thomas Lancaster

I am an experienced Computer Science academic, best known for research work into academic integrity, plagiarism and contract cheating. I have held leadership positions in several universities, with specialty in student recruitment and keen interest in working in partnership with students. Please browse around the blog and the links, and feel free to leave your thoughts.
Website: http://thomaslancaster.co.uk
Thomas Lancaster has written 143 articles so far, you can find them below.


My First Experience Of Contract Cheating

Perhaps the area of academic life that I’m best known for is contract cheating. I’ve both published and spoken widely on this subject, exploring how students are getting work completed for them, which they are then handing in for academic credit as if this were their own work.

I’ve also recently been instrumental in setting up a Contract Cheating Special Interest Group on behalf of the Higher Education Academy, which is well worth participating in if this area of practioner and academic research interests you.

I can’t remember when exactly I first came across outsourcing services, such as RentACoder (now known as vWorker). As someone with a widespread interest in computing and technology, I’m normally at the forefront of interesting new developments like these services, and I certainly knew about services like essay mills from my PhD research into plagiarism detection.

But, I do remember the first time that I saw one of my assignment specifications on RentACoder.

It was late 2003, a few months into my tenure as a Lecturer at Birmingham City University, when I was teaching C programming to second year students. I always believe in setting original assignments to students, and this one was original, but it was based loosely on a Java programming assingment from my teaching at London South Bank University. The objective was to model the seat reservation system for an airline.

Out of curiousity, I happened to search for terms I’d used in the assignment specification, not expecting to find anything, but the search raised a match on RentACoder. A quick check of the link revealed a copy of the assignment specification hosted on RentACoder and that a contractor was working on this for a cost somewhere under $20. It also revealed that this was not the first assignment specification listed under this user’s account.

But, particularly interesting were the combinations of assignments that were listed. There was no way that these could all belong to a particular student, or even to one university. Unknowingly, I’d stumbled upon my first example of what I’d now term a contract cheating subcontactor.

In this case, even though the username didn’t directly match a student, it was pretty easy to track down both the students involved using forensic clues. This turned out to be a student who had put up a few of their assignments, both for our course and at a previous university they’d attended (this combination making this particularly simple to track down). My assignment was the result of putting up a bid request for a friend.

Even if I hadn’t spotted it, the finished assignment, when submitted, would have raised alarm bells, mainly because the coding style didn’t bear any resemblance to the class teaching. The assignment specification also required a number of reflective elements, which weren’t clearly addressed by the finished work. Most importantly, the other requirements for the module assessment design meant that the student wouldn’t pass with the outsourced work, even before appropriate actions were taken through the official university disciplinary processes.

It was that incident that sparked off an interest in what would come to be called contract cheating. That hasn’t been the most memorable incident of contract cheating that I’ve been involved with, but perhaps that can be addressed in another post.

 

Feel free to add your first (or subsequent) experience of contact cheating as a reply.

How To Search For Yourself Online Using Google

I’ve created a simple video demo showing how to search for yourself online using the techniques in the Online Professional Presences post.

It is worthwhile carrying out a search like this at least once a month to make sure that there is no information showing that you wouldn’t want a potential employer to see.

You can also make sure that the sites that you want to push employers towards show up in the search results. Otherwise, you need to do more work on your professional online presence, for instance by adding content to those sites and pages and publicising them around social media.

Online Professional Presences – What Does The Internet Say About You?

If you’re a student, or even a professional looking for work, it’s very important to know what the Internet has to say about you.

Here’s a quick test.

Go to Google, and type in the your name in quotation marks.

Look at the first page of results.

There should be plenty of information on there which presents you in a positive light. There certainly shouldn’t be any negative information.

If you have a really common name, you might need to refine the search in a similar way to a potential employer would. Add your town, city or university to the search, or search by your email address or any online handles that you use and are easy to find.

This isn’t theoretical. Recent research showed that over 90% of employers searched for people looking for graduate jobs online before they could employ them (or, in many cases, even invite them to interview). If the information you want them to read isn’t there, then you just won’t get the professional jobs that you’re looking for.

Even more challenging?

Many employers bypass Google now and go directly to Facebook. The Facebook search options makes it very easy to find out more about candidates.

You need to treat all your socal media profiles as being in the public eye, because that’s what they are.

And, if employers can’t find out anything about you, what does that say?

To many employers, it says that you have something to hide.

To others, it’s that you just aren’t bothered about whether people can find out about you online.

Neither of those are good traits to potential employers.

 

Professional Presence Workshop

To find out more about social media, professional presences, and how these impact on employability, check out the Professional Presence Workshop at Birmingham City University. Places are free for academics interested in teaching these skills to students, but limited.

 

Your Thoughts

Do share your thoughts about the importance of an online professional presence in the comment area below.

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