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How Cisco Is Fighting To Protect Academic Integrity

By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission.

Cisco is a Fortune 100 company, a global technology and security leader with annual revenue in the range of $49 billion. You know who they are.   

But you may not know about the important, responsible work they’re doing to protect academic integrity.

Few things are a more serious, persistent threat to the quality and value of education than cheating, especially organized cheating for profit.  Unfortunately, cheating is a highly lucrative, global business – one that schools and other education providers have largely been unwilling or unable to adequately address due to its size, sophistication and complexity.  

That is where Cisco comes in and why what they’re quietly doing is so important.

With little fanfare or publicity, Cisco has been researching and blocking access to cheating websites – to the companies that sell answers to tests and homework or offer to write essays or impersonate students in online classes. In doing so, Cisco is perhaps the only company actively trying to shut down these illicit actors and crimp their business pipeline to students.

Jaeson Schultz is Technical Leader at Cisco Talos Intelligence Group. He’s done some great research on online cheating. He is also part of the company’s classification team which actively puts websites into categories based on the services or products they provide. Once a website has a category, Cisco clients and customers can decide what categories of websites are or are not allowed on their networks, where people using their systems may and not pass.

Probably unknown to many, one of the categories in the Cisco portfolio of types of sites is an “academic fraud” bucket. In it are companies such as Course Hero, one of the largest sites to profit from the unauthorized, often banned sharing of academic content. “Course Hero definitely provides straight up answers to textbook questions – click on this, see the answers. I don’t think there’s any dispute that it could fall into that category,” Schultz said.

Course Hero is just one of the flagged sites in the “academic fraud” category. Schultz and his team have identified more than a thousand.

“If you look around Twitter,” Schultz said, “it’s pretty blatant. All these ‘need help with homework’ websites. As long as there’s money to be made, these websites will be profitable. Stopping them is like whack-a-mole.”

He continued, “I’ve been pretty shocked to see some of the claims. We will write your paper, help you get an A. These places really take advantage of students, but because it’s like a low level fraud, they tend to get away with it.”

Predictably, it’s not just the cheating that’s a problem. Reports of extortion by cheating companies – threatening to turn cheating students in to their schools – are common. And, Schultz says, many of the flagged cheating sites are also riddled with dangerous malware. Which is to say that, even if you set aside the blatant academic dishonesty, there are real reasons that network owners such as colleges and universities may want to limit access these dangerous websites.    

Interestingly, blacklisting cheating websites isn’t Cisco’s first brush with brokers of academic dishonesty. About five years ago, Cisco actually sued some academic fraudsters with some amazing names such as “TestKing” and “TestInside” and “Pass4Sure” after some test questions from Cicso certification exams were stolen from a test center and sold online, neatly repackaged as “exam prep content.” Now that kind of thing is more commonly called “tutoring” – but it’s the same.

Perhaps having their own academic content stolen and sold to enable cheating made Cisco sensitive to the challenge. But even if that’s not the case, even if their academic fraud flags exist just because those sites are bad news, that’s great news for colleges and other testing providers.

That’s because many hundreds of colleges and other schools use Cisco to power or protect their information and internet networks and, according to the company, all those schools have to do is toggle on a feature to block access to the sites tagged as “academic fraud.” One click and more than a thousand cheating websites disappear from college systems – putting them just a bit further away from vulnerable or desperate students.

Chances are good that most colleges don’t know they can do that – don’t know that thanks to Cisco’s hard work behind the scenes, they can easily initiate such sweeping anti-cheating protections. Every school that can do that, should.

It’s a big, big deal because most schools are overwhelmed by the challenge of cheating sites. So much so that they largely don’t bother trying to block access on their networks, even though they should. There are just too many to investigate, verify and block one at a time. But if Cisco already keeps a list, schools should use it.

By engaging the Cisco list, by blocking fraud sites in bulk, colleges can also score another win.

When students can access cheating providers directly over the school’s own network, it can send a confusing message. By blocking those sites, by making students take the extra, overt step to engage cheating profiteers and by simply having a list of “academic fraud” providers, misconduct charges may resolve more definitively and efficiently.

From a college’s view, those seem to be big wins – while simply turning the Cisco service on seems like the least a school should do.

“If we can raise awareness about this,” Cisco’s Schultz said, “maybe we can get some of these guys shut down so they can’t take advantage of students anymore. We want to do our piece to secure the defenses against those who don’t have students’ best interests at heart.”

Originally posted on Forbes on July 28, 2021.