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Classroom Ethics

Rise of the cybercheat

December 7, 2006

There was a time when academic plagiarism involved laborious copying from books or newspapers, and an exam room cheat note was limited to whatever you could write on your hand or a tiny piece of paper.

Today the communications revolution has added new high-tech weapons to the arsenal of the would-be cheat — and there are lots of cheaters out there looking for an edge.

In a 2006 survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, 60 per cent of U.S. high school students said that they had cheated in the previous year. A 2005 Rutgers study found that more than half of graduate business students in North America admitted to the same thing.

With numbers like that, academic institutions worry about anything that makes cheating easier.

Diane Shulman, vice-president academic at Ryerson University in Toronto, notes that one concern for schools is "the temptation of cellphones and text messages, which allows communication between students that was never possible before."

Today's small, concealable phones can be used by students to receive answers from accomplices via e-mail or text message, for example. Even the ubiquitous iPod music player can be used as a digital cheat sheet — a company called iPREPpress sells research notes specifically designed for use on an iPod, for example. Essentially the same as the Coles or Cliff notes that students have used for generations, entire books can be downloaded and read on any iPod with a display screen.

However, Kurt Gosyyk, president of iPREPpress, says that there's really not much new here in terms of a student's ability to cheat — educators have always had to look out for cheat notes in the test room, regardless of whether the medium was digital or plain old paper. He also observes that a student hunched over and scrolling through a large data file would probably attract the attention of even the most indifferent exam supervisor.

To combat gadget-based cheating, many academic institutions now ban most electronic devices at the student's desk during testing.

Rod Webb, associate vice-president academic at Toronto's York University, says even programmable calculators (which are permitted in some exams) must have their memories cleared before being used.

Webb notes that the real key to preventing exam room cheating is to ensure that the "invigilators are invigilating" by "walking around the room and keeping an eye on what's going on. If there's a shortcut, some students are going to try and find it. The more difficult we make it for them, the less likely they are to try."

Plagiarism a major problem

While supervisors can crack down on cheating with electronic gear in exam rooms, a bigger problem that technology has unleashed on schools is internet plagiarism. It can range from cutting and pasting a couple of sentences to downloading an entire term paper.

There are dozens of sites with names such as Cheathouse.com and The Essay Depot that offer papers on hundreds of subjects, notionally as "research aids." Paul Roberts, the 25- year-old owner of Cheater.com, says his site is intended to be used as only "a source of ideas" for students. However, he acknowledges that there's nothing to stop a student from handing in a downloaded paper as original work.

In response to the plagiarism threat, schools have also turned to the web for a solution.

"You can have the best classrooms, the best teachers, the best books in the world, but if the work that's being graded doesn't belong to the student, it's all a waste," says John Barrie, president and chief executive officer of Turnitin, which offers an anti-plagiarism service to academic institutions.

Digital submissions

Papers submitted digitally to Turnitin are checked for similarity against a database of more than 26 million other papers, nine billion web pages and a variety of publications. Barrie says that more than 7000 institutions now subscribe to Turnitin, including more than half of all Canadian universities.

Both Ryerson and York subscribe to Turnitin, so instructors have the option of requesting their students submit papers to the service. Still, as Schulman points out, it's far from foolproof: "While it does provide [professors] with a tool that gives some modicum of assurance that the work isn't copied, it can't ensure the student's mother didn't write it, or that it wasn't bought on Yonge Street."

York's Webb echoes those observations, and adds that "technology hasn't replaced common sense. Professors have to read student papers carefully, and that's often the best way to distinguish anything that's inappropriate."

For students who prefer not to have to run their work through Turnitin, York and Ryerson offer alternatives, such as providing instructors with detailed bibliographies or early drafts of their work.

The York School, a private high school in Toronto, is an "e-school," meaning that most tests are conducted on laptop computers. It doesn't subscribe to Turnitin, but requires all students to submit preliminary drafts of papers. This poses its own problems, as close monitoring is necessary to ensure that students don't search the internet for test answers.

Punishing the plagiarists

Still, Douglas Parker, head of the humanities department at the school, says most internet plagiarists can be uncovered with a simple Google search. Where first-time plagiarism is found, the school will work with the student to ensure they understand the proper way to write a paper, although subsequent occurrences can be punished with a zero grade or even a suspension.

Conrad Schneider, a grade 10 student at Appleby College, another e-school, says he's heard stories of students using the web to find answers during exams, but doesn't personally know anyone who's done it. Appleby uses a system called "Securexam," which blocks student access to any other computer applications during the exam.

In spite of the growing number of ways to beat the system, educators feel that the cheating issue is manageable, and sometimes it even provides an opportunity to educate.

"A lot of plagiarism is almost unintentional," Schulman says. "Often students don't know the rules and don't have the art of paraphrasing. Teaching them about plagiarism is a chance to make sure they have the skills to take information and synthesize it."

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