On Campus

Cramming? Download the answers

Online services provide textbook answers, notes, and exams. But is it cheating?

Instead of turning to classmates for help during all-night cram sessions before final exams, the New York Times is reporting that students are now just as likely to be turning towards commercial websites that provide step-by-step solutions to textbook questions, copies of previous exams, lecture notes and even real-time help with physics, math and computer programs.

Although many students now use these online services, with fun names like Cramster, Course Hero, Koofers and Sparknotes, some faculty are questioning whether or not these sites encourage cheating, and if students are falling prey to the intellectual equivalent of a get-rich-quick scheme.

One example is Course Hero, says the Times, a program into which students can type in a college name and course number to find the previous semester’s exam. The site hosts hundreds of thousands of textbook solutions, along with an offer to “leverage study materials” within study groups who are taking, or have already taken, a class.

Some (including professors) are jumping to defend the websites, saying that instructors should not be reusing exams, and that copied homework will eventually lead to a lower exam grade. Additionally, many of the documents have long been available through other means (either through the library, through frats or sororities, or from friends and acquaintances who already took the course.)

David A. Sachs, associate dean in the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems at Pace University, who is part of an advisory panel for the popular Cramster service, says universities need to rethink their practices in light of the Internet.

“As faculty, we need to be better educated about what the possibilities are, and the truth is you can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” Dr. Sachs said. “If Cramster and all these companies disappeared tomorrow, you could still do a Google search and find what you’re looking for in five minutes.”

Cramster, which has been online since 2003, has about 500,000 registered users, many of whom visit the site specifically for solutions to math and science textbook problems. Solutions to odd-numbered problems are free, but students must pay $9.95 a month to see the even-numbered answers.

According to the Times, students can post queries to the site’s 3,000 “experts,” who are rated for quality (like eBay sellers) and earn “karma” points for rewards like laptops and iPods. An expert, according to Cramster’s CEO, could be a brilliant high school senior bound for M.I.T., a professor or a retired engineer. The company also has staff members who moderate the question-and-answer board.

“There’s no doubt our site can be abused,” says Hawkey. “Let’s say I have a take-home test. We had one incident where someone posted a question on our site that was the same one [as] on an exam.”

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