New technologies enable cheaters, detectors in a matter of keystrokes

Rapid changes in technology are providing students with newer, easier, and quicker ways to cheat. They are also making it easier for teachers to detect cheating. Perhaps the most well-known way of cheating in the Digital Age is through what are called “on-line paper mills,” web sites that provide ready-made term papers on thousands of topics for a per-paper fee. The sites’ selling points include the cut-and-paste ease of electronic transfer of data and the promise of the plagiarism going undetected, since professors are used to seeing so many term papers.

Professors are used to seeing generated term papers, too, and they have their own resources to check students’ papers against those offered online. For example, there are online detection services that scour the Internet and their own databases looking for identical passages in the paper being checked and those already on line. Two such services are, a fee-based service created by a team of researchers from the University of California at Berkeley led by John Barrie, and, run by Digital Integrity Inc. of San Mateo, California. Professors are also adept at writing their own detection programs.

Apart from the paper mills, there are many other online resources for cheaters. Bulletin board forums, for example, provide easy airing of cries for “help.” For example, students at North Carolina State University can visit the “Study Hall” forum on “The Wolf Web”, set up specifically for students to “discuss teachers, classes, homework, tests, etc.” It can be a good resource for students needing help with their homework, but it also can be a tool for cheating. It can also be both to any student who hasn’t decided which path to choose, as appeared to be the case with the student whose thread on the subject of his calculus assignment read: “It’s due tonight, anyone got it done?? if you wanna send it to me, that’d be great too” [sic].

Along similar lines, students can also use e-mail, Internet chat rooms (which differ from bulletin-board forums in that chat rooms are real-time and require participants to be logged on simultaneously, whereas bulletin boards keep the information viewable so forum participants may view or add to it whenever they log on), and even instant messaging (a more private version of a chat room). And not just for homework, either; more and more, students are able to access the Internet in class.

Some classrooms are set up for Internet access, and students may bring their laptops in with them and plug them in. (Apart from making it easier to cheat, the new technology at students’ fingertips have changed the face of in-class goofing off, with computer games replacing crossword puzzles.) Also, the advent of wireless Internet access means students can chat, check email, and even search the World Wide Web on a handheld digital phone. Another handheld implement for cheating is a memory-intensive calculator that allows the student to save his class notes on it.

In most test situations, students are allowed to used calculators, but in some instances a student pulling out a calculator is also essentially taking an open-notes test.

Rapid technological growth has always opened new avenues for growth and opportunity adjacent to new side streets of mischief. Professors should be aware of the new ways students can cheat in order to know how to avoid giving students the opportunities and know how to check afterwards. Plus, most student codes of conduct encourage (to varying degrees of intensity) students who see their peers cheating to turn them in.

The latter is what happened this spring at the University of Virginia, when a student in Prof. Louis A. Bloomfield’s introductory physics class of several hundred students told him the grade she had received on her paper was low because many with higher grades had cheated. Bloomfield checked, using a computer program he set up to detect similarities between the 1,800 term papers submitted to him over the past five years. The results rocked the campus; 122 students were accused of cheating.