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Monday, 18 May 2020

How the shift to research assessments in public schools prompted the rise of an ancillary (and legally dubious) industry

How the shift to research assessments in public schools prompted the rise of an ancillary (and legally dubious) industry: As the covid-19 pandemic forced schools into lockdown mode, the Education Ministry has had to replace in-school exams in public schools with research papers submitted online. While the transition to research papers was praised by many of the people we spoke with — primarily for pushing through reforms away from rote memorization — its sudden nature has created an industry of private tutors and education centers providing support for research.

This industry has been accused of walking a fine line between teaching aid and plagiarism, calling into question the efficacy of the research assessment process. The quick transition coupled with the confusion and lack of readiness of many students has created a vacuum that was soon filled with teachers offering to write the reports for students, education centers turning into hubs to distribute pre-written reports, and stationary stores stocking top-selling research papers. Yet despite these issues, ministry officials, experts, and parents we’ve spoken to tell us they see the long-term merits of this system. Only through teaching students how to research will the need for these new private tutors be mitigated, they said.

But first, a quick recap of the research assessment process: Students from grades 3-9 had to submit research papers on topics set by the ministry, either alone or in a group of five relying on school books, independent online platforms, and the Education Ministry’s Knowledge Bank. Students then had to submit them either as a soft copy online or a hardcopy at schools between 9-13 May. Shawky has repeatedly said that submitting papers is enough for most students to pass, and that assessments would be marked with either a pass or a fail instead of the usual scoring.

Plagiarized reports, hiring writers, and online help is the mainstay of this industry: As a newly emergent industry that relies to some extent on plagiarism (which is illegal), quantifying its size and scope is difficult. But we have managed to pinpoint three main tiers for how this industry profits from the new system: sales of pre-written research papers, the use of tutors to write reports, and an online market providing actual tutoring.

Pre-written papers for sale: Despite being ordered to close by the government in March, Education Ministry advisor Mahmoud Hassouna tells us that education centers have begun selling research papers to students eager to avoid having to do the legwork to complete their courses. This new business model has evidently proven popular among students, with parents telling us of long queues forming outside centers. Prices differ depending on the grade and subject, ranging from as low as EGP 50-100 for primary grades and up to EGP 350 for elementary school students, Deputy Chairman of the Private Schools Owners Association Badawy Allam told Enterprise. Competition in crowded areas keeps the prices in check, while upscale neighborhoods and districts saw higher prices, Allam said. Even students who wrote the papers themselves and showed up at print shops to print their drafts were offered plagiarized copies and even discounts on buying in bulk.

Get your 10-year-old their very own research assistant / ghostwriter: The research papers breathed new life to private tutors who have seen business falter during the crisis. Many have reportedly been offering parents to write up these research reports for a fee. Marketing campaigns have also targeted parents and students at homes, where some parents have said they received phone calls from teachers offering to write up the essays for their children, while others made their bids on parents groups on social media. Even classified ads are popping up, featuring new services from “experts” who can help write the research papers for a “small” fee, which in some cases can reach EGP 700.

Above board business practices also exist in the online space: Many teachers have taken their business online, with some still giving paid private lessons and others creating YouTube channels that can potentially become an even more lucrative business. One such channel, which used to specialize in publishing religious content, has turned to brief explainers for research papers, which boosted its engagement and view count. Its 74.2k subscribers and increased viewership are projected to help the channel rake in north of USD 2k per month. The same has been happening on Facebook as well, with some previously-established groups turning their activity towards teaching students how to write papers and growing their membership base significantly since.

Some are truly in it for the education: Networks of activist teachers have been offering help to students to prepare research papers without charge.

The ministry has taken a tough stance against the industry: The Education Ministry has warned that teachers will be expelled if they are caught writing papers for students in return for financial compensation, and threatened to close down stationery stores and education centers that offer such services, Allam told Enterprise. As for students, Education Minister Tarek Shawky warned on Facebook that all students who buy and copy research papers will flunk the year.

Enforcement of online activity is next to impossible, according to Hassouna, who told Enterprise that the ministry cannot oversee all social media content. Even if the ministry is successful in closing down offending Facebook groups, the situation would soon turn into a game of whack-a-mole as new pages crop up, he said.

The ministry says parents are partly to blame: Senior figures in the ministry argue that parents are partly culpable for the rise of the industry, who have paid for the services out of anxiety for their children’s education. Defending the research program in parliament, Education Minister Tarek Shawky noted that parents too lined up outside education centers to spend money on the research papers instead of having their children complete the work themselves, describing the behavior as "one of the pathological phenomena inherited from previous years." "People are inherently worried about the unknown so they would prefer putting their trust in professional teachers writing up essays for their children instead than helping them write their own," Hassouna said.

Coming full circle: Prior to the 2017 education reforms, the prevailing wisdom was that the growth of private tutors came down to oversized classrooms with poor teacher-to-student ratios. Private tutoring helped alleviate the fears of parents that their children were not learning enough in the classroom and provided underpaid teachers a means to earn a little extra. We may be seeing the dynamic repeated here, as the interruptions to the education system drives parents into the arms of this new industry.

Teaching these skills in the classroom is the obvious solution: The old education system was often criticized for not teaching students analytical skills and, instead, memorizing questions and answers that they can identify in exam papers, Walaa Shabana, an education consultant who previously served as head of the private education department at the Education Ministry, tells us. Students in public schools should surely now be taught how to write these papers in the same way as students in international and private schools, which parents we spoke with said gives them a clear advantage.

Which is why it's a good thing that research papers will continue to play a role in public education next year: The Education Ministry advisor Mahmoud Hassouna told us that research papers will not be a one-off and will continue next year as the ministry builds on what it has achieved this year.

And the ministry intends to take action to limit the influence of private tutors and pay-to-play learning on parents and students: Interactive education tools will be introduced that will limit the use of private tutoring, while providing an online platform for students to communicate with their teachers without charge that will waive the need for them to buy reports, Massouna said, pledging to end private tutoring in the next three years.

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