October 13th, 2009 by Potato

Many years ago, when first starting my MSc, I signed up to be an Online TA (OTA) with Brainmass, an online tutoring service. At first it was fantastic: students would post questions, and bid credits to have them answered. The credits were worth in the neighbourhood of $3, and the guideline was to bid about one credit for every 15 minutes it should take the OTA to answer the question (80% of what the student paid went to the OTAs, the rest was kept by Brainmass for admin and advertising). I got an email whenever a question was submitted in my area of expertise, and could log on and sign out the problem if I liked it, or leave it for another OTA if not. Of course, some students — rather than try to get help with a concept, or the outline of a solution without the final answer worked out, or just have someone to double check their work or just with one tough problem — would submit whole problem sets and try to use Brainmass as a homework solution service rather than as an aide. The guidelines were pretty strict, and students posting that sort of thing would be asked to refine their question so that it wasn’t like trying to just pay someone to do their work for them. I really liked the project and got involved near the beginning, even writing a piece for the news and inspiration section.

For a while, it worked great. I could work for an hour or two per week from home, and pull in $50 every two months or so ($50 being the minimum payout), which was decent pizza money. The experience was also rewarding: I recall one student in particular who had some real doozies of questions in genetics that required a few follow-up postings to get fully answered. That student wrote back a few weeks later “[Thank my OTA for me], I am pretty sure I aced my quiz this week!” which is one of the great emails in my archives to go back and reread when I need a pick-me-up.

Unfortunately, things started to go downhill. It is, as you can see, a pretty sweet deal for grad students: the potential for pizza money with no real commitment. The number of OTAs quickly grew while the number of students submitting answers did not, at least not anywhere near the same rate. Soon enough, rather than having a few hours or a few minutes at least to read over a posting before deciding if you wanted to sign it out, it would be signed out as soon as it was posted, before the email even percolated out to alert the OTAs of a new posting. Some OTAs just camped on Brainmass all day long, practically turning it into a full-time job. I don’t want to stereotype too much, but being a globally accessible service there were a number of OTAs from well-known off-shoring countries who were more than willing to answer nearly any question for a single credit. That lead to credit-bidding deflation, and different student expectations: if you answered a problem by telling them which physical laws to use where, and some hints and insights into why the answer would work out the way it would, but didn’t actually calculate the numbers to hand them the final answer on a silver platter, you were rated poorly. It became somewhat of a problem-solution clearinghouse. And with the intense competition to even sign postings out in the first place, I quickly stopped seeing the point.

Of course, I didn’t quit. I still have my account there, and every now and then log in just to see if there are any interesting problems. Plus one can get residuals since problems you answer go into their library, where they can be purchased at a discount by other students, rather than getting a custom solution and paying for the OTA’s time. Now that the library is getting huge (over one hundred thousand solutions), the posting volume has started to drop off, since almost all the common problems have already been asked and answered. That means that the problems that are up for custom solutions tend to be different or off the wall. Unfortunately, I’m finding that they’re getting to be too specialized for me to answer(!), and the ones that aren’t 4th-year essays are still students looking for complete problem set answers. They don’t even add any commentary like “please help me with this” or “I don’t understand” or anything, just a list of questions, sometimes scanned right out of the textbook. I haven’t answered a question in over a year…

Anyway, I don’t want to sound bitter, because I’m anything but — it’s a good service, and the admins do what they can to try to root out the “answer service” issue. It’s just hard because they can really only do enforcement from one side. When the students come in expecting to just pay for answers and not caring about learning, and when they’re the ones with the money, it’s hard to slap them on the wrists to change those expectations… Sure, they can send them copies of the policy and ask them to resubmit their question, but beyond that there’s not much they can do to change the mindset of someone willing to pay to not learn. Even if they did manage to drill the basic concept into a potential student/customer’s head, there seems to be an endless army of lazy students behind them looking for easy answers, who can’t be bothered to read the ToS or pop-up windows that it’s not a homework-answering service…


2 Responses to “Brainmass”

  1. Mark Wolfinger Says:

    Too few students go to school to learn

    Too bad, for that’s the opportunity of a lifetime. An education lasts forever

  2. Carl Says:

    Great insight. I just signed up for to become an OTA this week and figured the website was already saturated with OTAs. The only reason I signed up is for a resume boost for an online teaching gig. It looks like it’s more than enough solutions in the library. Thanks.