IN A blended learning modality, apart from joining online groups on social media platforms where they share answers to academic works, some students also resort to hiring other people to get their projects and assignments done.

Paid academic services

While browsing on Twitter, communication student Ninna (not her real name) stumbled upon a tweet about “academic servers” hiring. Out of curiosity, she applied and got hired immediately.

Academic servers are for hire individuals offering academic commission services to students who want to evade from their class works and projects.

The term “academic servers” and “academic commission services” are new to Ninna but she carried on this journey since August 2020. Over a year after, she is now earning enough to support her family and her medication. She is diagnosed with psychosocial disability which is Focal Epilepsy.

“I decided to do this kind of hustle because I was struggling financially. I tried looking for other jobs in BPO companies, ESL (English as a Second Language) teaching, and many more but was very unfortunate to secure a job. So when I saw that twitter account, I decided to apply without hesitation because I also wanted to help my family in our daily expenses such as my medicine, internet, electricity and water bills,” she said.

In a month, Ninna earns at least P10,000 to P12,000 from an average of 60 commissioned works from various clients.

Asked about how much she charges to her clients, Ninna was quick to add that her rates depend on the project’s level of difficulty. Deadline also affects her pricing. Here’s a quick rundown to Ninna’s rates:

Essay/Reflection paper – P0.50 per word

Learning module – P350 to P400 (per week depending on the length)

Posters, slogans, digital arts – starts at P150 -P300 (depending on the requirement)

Video editing – P1,000 (7 to 8 minutes)

A transaction with a client, she said, usually starts with an inquiry, followed by a form to be filled out. These are the information she asks from her clients:

Name:

Type of commission:

Year Level:

Budget:

Deadline:

“If the client agrees to my rate, then it’s a deal. My mode of payment is through digital wallet GCash but sometimes I accept loads then find a trader so that I could use the money too for my daily expenses,” Ninna shared.

Just like Ninna, nursing student Chan, not his real name, is also engaged in this kind of side hustle. He uses social media to promote his services.

“I learned about academic commission services through a Facebook page that hires ‘academic servers’. I joined the group for about a month, then I created my own Facebook page afterwards,” he shared.

Chan added that the bulk of his clients are from Facebook, while a few others are from Twitter and Telegram. These are mostly junior, senior high school, and college students.

“On Facebook, I use my page and my own personal account to promote my services to students. I also used my real name on Twitter and Telegram. Having a dummy account for this doesn’t help for me because clients will trust you less,” he said.

Ninna and Chan both agreed that academic fatigue is the most common reason why students hire them for their services.

“I remember when I asked my first client why he hired me to do his activity, he said: Hindi kasi nakalagay sa module ate yung lesson and di ko maintindihan, kaya ko nalang pinapagawa kesa bumagsak ako (Some of the questions are not explained in the lessons on our modules. I can’t understand it, I’d rather pay for your services than fail),” Ninna said.

She added that others are also forced to hire them because they cannot handle both studies and work responsibilities at the same time.

Chan, however, also shared that there are also some who are just lazy, unmotivated to do their classwork, and are financially well-provided by their parents. He encourages them to be responsible and honest.

“To all my clients, I always tell them that they can’t always rely on me. They have to grow up and do their tasks for school for their own growth and learning. I even told them that once they learn how to love studying, they’ll realize that paying someone to do their assignments is completely unnecessary,” he said.

Why students embrace academic dishonesty under distance learning

Adelaida Sandiego, a retired high school principal in Antipolo, Rizal, gave her two cents on the issue, emphasizing that the students’ reasons for initiating “Online Kopyahan/Tulungan” groups and patronizing “academic servers” are valid and need to be addressed immediately.

In a public comment on a public post about “Online Kopyahan,” Sandiego said that the sorry state of students under a distance and blended learning modality forced them to look for ways to finish their academic tasks, even if it means crossing the academic dishonesty line.

“I think may point din yong mga bata kasi nga they are on their own, especially when some parents also don’t know how to help. Even before, during face-to-face classes, no matter how hard the teacher explains, some of them hardly understand. How much more when they’re isolated at home, helpless, and left with just instructions from their modules?” The retired principal said.

She added that the majority of the modules require assistance from teachers and parents; distributing it to the students is not enough.

“My point here is, let’s not condemn the students but we should look for the root cause of the problem,” Sandiego said.

Jessa Marie Catada, a psychologist in one of the biggest hospitals in Davao City and a graduate of Master in Psychology in the Ateneo de Davao University, said that four of the major factors why students engaged in these activities could be to unload burden, false camaraderie, conforming to trends, and technology.

Catada told SunStar Davao that these students are clearly overwhelmed and wanted to take the shortcut path just to unload their academic burden added with stress on their new lifestyle due to the pandemic. Avoiding discomfort and inconvenience, she said, is human nature.

She also explained that those students who reasoned out that they are just helping each other to get through this learning setup are most likely confused in recognizing up to what extent they can help their classmates without resorting to cheating.

“They have this sense of responsibility to help their classmates who are having difficulty with the said setup that they unknowingly have committed academic dishonesty. Cooperation is an important value for them that some of them would always believe that sharing is caring,” she said.

She said that some students were also possibly influenced to do the same becoming such acts are becoming widespread among them.

“Students who believe that most of their classmates do it may be more inclined to cheat. Influence of others can really affect someone's behavior,” Catada said, adding this is being amplified by technology and social media as these enable students to share answers with just a few clicks online.

Ninna, who was first hesitant to do the job of an academic server, admitted that she is aware that she is contributing to the alarming academic dishonesty among students.

“At first, I felt that I was doing this illegally. That is why I am using a dummy account way back in 2020. But now, I am using a real account and it makes me feel nervous a lot but since I need money for my tuition fee, school expenses, medicine, and for my family needs. I am determined to do this kind of hustle,” she opened up, adding that her parents have no stable jobs and her elder brother, the breadwinner of the family, died in July 2021.

But for Chan, what he is doing is helping the students and does not promote dishonesty among students.

“I believe that doing this job is not contributing to academic dishonesty because, to be honest, most teachers, parents, and elders don't know the struggle of the students who study in this time of crisis in online classes. They don't know how hard it is to learn in such a repetitive and dull environment that can drain the student's energy without realizing it. I know that experience because I am also a student, specifically a nursing student,” he maintained.

‘Academic Dishonesty’ not the solution

Department of Education (DepEd)-Davao Spokesperson Jenielito Atillo told SunStar Davao that these kinds of activities can never be justified at all.

“We are saddened by the situation and we do not want to tolerate these behaviors of students. Whatever the reasons, these are still academic dishonesty,” he said.

“Creating online groups for cheating and hiring other people to do your academic stuff is wrong from the very start no matter how good your intention is. The long-term effect of these is very disastrous on the part of the child because it is teaching the child to cheat, to do the easy way, where are growth and learning in that? It affects the moral standing of students,” Atillo added.

Atillo also said that learners are never left alone, as teachers are doing their best to help students cope up with the situation.

Academic ease over academic freeze

Following the problems stemming from the current blended learning setup, some student and youth groups like Samahan ng Progresibong Kabataan (Spark) are asking for an academic break earlier this year.

Atillo said the education department, along with the Commission on Higher Education (Ched), does not promote academic freeze but academic ease.

In April, in a televised public briefing, DepEd Undersecretary for Curriculum and Instruction Diosdado San Antonio said part of the Department Order released by DepEd on academic ease was to instruct teachers, both public and private, to be “considerate with the deadlines and to monitor the learners if they need support.”

“Mayroon din tayong sinasabing academic ease. Ang kailangan po ay mas maging considerate tayo sa mga sitwasyon ng bawat bata (We also have what we call academic ease. We need to be considerate of the situation of each learner),” he said.

“Nauunawaan natin na masyadong mapanghamon ang mga ginagawa at ang iba ay nagsasabi na masyadong overloaded iyong mga kailangang isumite ng mga bata (We understand some (academic) activities are challenging for learners and they are overloaded with things to submit))” San Antonio added.

Atillo also shared that many teachers especially in the remote areas in Davao Region are visiting their students to check on their status.

“Our teachers are making a lot of sacrifices. They do home visitation to conduct a personal follow-up to see what other guidance their students need,” he said.

Reopening of F2F, a silver lining

One of the top excuses of students why they settle for joining online groups like that of Online Kopyahan/Tulungan is they find a sense of community and fun when sharing answers among peers -- a clear outcome of the blended learning modality.

Unlike face-to-face classes, the current education system, at some point, deprives students of interacting with their classmates.

With some schools now reopening for in-person setup, DepEd is hopeful this will help alleviate the issues of academic dishonesty.

“We are hoping that F2F will be the solution, we really wanted to give our students and teachers a sense of normalcy. Hopefully, they’ll no longer resort to any form of academic dishonesty when we go back to face-to-face classes,” he said.

But Atillo warned that allowing all schools nationwide to open for in-person classes still needs more work as the protocols and policies are dependent on the Covid-19 situation in the country.

“That is why it’s important that we teach our students to be honest and responsible whatever the setup is,” he said.

At present, a total of 15 schools in the region are allowed to reopen in-person classes.

These are private school Faith International in Davao City; seven schools in Tagum City, Davao del Norte (New Balanban Elementary School, Nueva Fuerza Elementary School, San Agustin Elementary School, Babanganan Primary School, Cabugan Elementary School, Libuganon Integrated School, and Pandacan Integrated School); three in Davao del Sur (Clib Public School in Hagonoy and the Nodilla Elementary School and Tacub Elementary School in Kiblawan); and five in Davao de Oro (Bares Elementary School (Pagsabangan Extension) in New Bataan, Parasan Integrated School in Pantukan, and Lower Panansalan Elementary School (Jacinto Extension), Maugat Elementary School, and Digaynon Integrated School in Compostela.).

Appeal to guardians, teachers

Atillo appealed to the parents to be role models of their children and to always guide them in navigating through the new normal in education.

“These formative years in the life of our children are very crucial. It will mold them to who they’ll become. If we allow them to cheat and practice dishonesty, we are not doing them a favor, it’s a reverse growth,” he said.

He added that the distance learning setup is a perfect time to teach honesty among students as academic honesty is a value that a student brings as they grow older.

College instructor Alvin Aligato, for his part, shared parents should strengthen the values of their children and teachers should be serious in the disciplinary actions if a student is proven guilty of academic dishonesty.

“As a teacher, yes, we need to be considerate especially this time, but that doesn’t mean we let go of the possible consequences if a student is proven to be dishonest through cheating. We should always give them a lesson, not just in academics, but also in life in general,” he said.

Aligato shared that, during his first year in teaching, he was very clear to his students that his number one enemy in class are cheaters. He even marked one student caught cheating with a zero grade in the exams. He reprimanded the student in private to avoid embarrassment.

“Since that incident the student learned his lesson, studied better, and became more active in class. He eventually passed the subject. His classmates never dared to do the same mistake, for me it was effective,” he added.

Psychologist Catada also believes that exercising reinforcement on children when they do things with integrity can also help motivate learners to embrace honesty. She also emphasized allowing children to commit mistakes and learn from it is an important aspect for their personal and academic growth.

“While they are still learning, it is important that in times when they are about to engage in dishonest work or are caught doing dishonest work, parents and educators must not condone their behavior. Instead, they must be dealt with accordingly. At the same time, as students, reminding them that they have other opportunities to do better will help as well,” she said.

What can be done in the system

What’s our approach in teaching? How considerate should teachers and parents be to the learners? How to ensure quality learning and academic honesty?

These are some of the questions that the government and all educational stakeholders should focus on moving forward.

Catada made a good point that what the community, as a whole, can do to better the learning situation among students is “to acknowledge students’ hard work, give less focus on grades, and be more open in conversations that matter like mental health and honesty and integrity.”

“Teachers and parents must acknowledge the hard work of students in their classes, rather than relying too much on their scores which can only worsen the problem of cheating. If there's a change in providing motivation among students whether intrinsic or extrinsic, there will be a change in their behavior,” she said.

“Developing students' competence with expectation of excellence from them but with compassion and patience must be present in our educational system. With the existence of these factors, students might be less tempted to commit academic dishonesty,” she added.

The pandemic, no doubt, has wreaked havoc on the already challenged educational system in the country. When the pandemic hit, it was clear that the system, especially in public schools, is never ready for online and blended learning.

Ideally, after nearly two years into the pandemic, improvements in the system must be in place to make the adjustments of students and teachers better, instead, we saw the rise of academic dishonesty through online groups and commissioned works from third parties. These situations are telling the education sector that, while efforts of the government and private sector are noted, a lot has yet to be done.

Academic dishonesty is both the reflection of the poor study habits of this generation’s students due to the pandemic and one of the symptoms of the struggling education system the Philippines has. To address this, a whole-of-the-nation approach is highly needed.

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(Note: First part of this story “Bayanihan o Kopyahan” was published Monday, December 6, 2021. This two-part series story was produced by Ace June Rell S. Perez as one of the fellows of the 2021 PPI Civic Journalism Fellowship on the Coverage of the Pandemic and the May 2022 Elections, with funding from the Hanns Seidel Foundation-Philippines.)