Digital Technology Brings New Challenges to the Fight Against Cheating

Cheating in the classroom is hardly a new challenge for schools, but with the advent of miniaturized technology, detecting it and stopping it is becoming much harder. Even when the methods are not particularly high-tech, social media and video sharing sites like YouTub reach an ever-wider audience of potential rule-breakers.

Researchers began sounding the bell on the growing threat that high-tech cheating represented as early as 2004 – the era that T.H.E. Journal’s John K. Waters calls “the digital Stone Age.” A study out of Santa Clara University first presented evidence that technology-abetted cheating was growing, especially at the secondary school level.

Five years later another study – this one from Common Sense Media – showed that more than 30% of students between the ages of 13 and 19 used personal digital devices and the internet to cheat in their academic work.

If the primary instrument of high-tech cheating is the smartphone, why not simply ban the devices during exams? A growing number of schools around the country are taking that approach. Along with banning cell phones from test environments, the state of California has gone so far as to deploy a team from the state education department and the national Educational Testing Service to check social media sites “every 15 minutes” to see if students have snapped pictures of tests and posted them online. (Last year, 36 questions from standardized exams in the state showed up on social media sites, the Los Angeles Times reported.)

A Southern California high school junior who asked not to be identified says that her experience suggests that a ban alone won’t do much to curtail cell-phone-enabled cheating if the teachers aren’t paying attention. “I have a lot of teachers who say, ‘Put your cell phones in your backpacks,’ but then just sit at their desks when we take the tests,” she says. “And they never look up. It’s just really easy to cheat in those classes. You just keep your cell phone in your lap under your desk and look down. I don’t see people doing it all the time, but it definitely happens.”

Testing is hardly the only frontier on which the battle against technology-assisted cheating is being fought. Thanks to Google’s search, which puts the web at anyone’s fingertips, the incidents of plagiarism – copying work without attribution – are on the rise too. As a result, schools are turning to companies like Turnitin, which offers a service that will quickly scan students’ submitted work and highlight instances of suspected plagiarism.

As an additional service, Turnitin also runs a meta analysis on the papers it received. Last year it scanned 38 million, and found with in them more than 150 million instances of material being copied from elsewhere.

According to Waters, Wikipedia proved to be the most common source.

“Think about that!” says Jason Chu, senior education manager at Turnitin. “You have students who are writing papers, and their version of doing research, which is really informed by their social habits, is to go to a social sharing site. What’s the credibility behind Yahoo Answers? It doesn’t make any sense, but it sheds light on the challenge students are facing when it comes to research online.”

For many students born in the digital age, Chu says, research means search. “The irony, of course, is that there’s so much information available to students online that they don’t know how to parse,” Chu says. “They don’t know how to interpret it, how to evaluate it, how to make sense of it.”