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Heloise Pechan’s heart rose when she read the essay one of her students, a seemingly uninterested high school sophomore, had turned in for a class assignment on “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The paper was clear, logical and well-written – a sign, she thought, that she had gotten through to the boy.
Her elation passed quickly. What came next was suspicion.
Pechan, then substitute teaching at a McHenry County, Ill., high school, went to Google, typed the paper’s first sentence (“Kind and understanding, strict but fair, Atticus Finch embodies everything that a father should be”) and there it was: The entire essay had been lifted from an online paper mill.
“I went from amazement and excitement to ‘Oh my God’ in the space of a half-second,” Pechan recalled recently.
That feeling is going around a lot these days. As technology puts massive computing power and the near-sum of human knowledge within a few taps of a touch screen, educators and students say young people are finding new and increasingly devious ways to cheat.
They’re going to websites that calculate the answers for their math homework. They’re snapping covert photos of exams and forwarding them to friends. They’re sneaking cheat sheets into the memory banks of their calculators.
Isha Jog, 17, a senior at Hoffman Estates, Ill., High School, said she has even seen some of her peers getting quiz answers off their cellphones – while the quiz is in progress.
At the same time, technology is also helping to foil digital desperadoes. Teachers are running essays though automated plagiarism detectors. They’re using wireless systems that allow them to observe what students are doing with their classroom calculators. And they’re using programs to shuffle test questions so every class gets a different version.
Still, experts say cheaters have the upper hand, leaving some educators to look for teaching techniques that are harder to game. But in the file-sharing, cut-and-paste world enabled by the Internet, some say the biggest challenge might be convincing students that what they’re doing is wrong.
“I definitely think there’s a mindset problem,” said Carol Baker, curriculum director for science and music in Oak Lawn, Ill.,-based School District 218 and president of the Illinois Science Teachers Association. “Today, kids are used to obtaining any kind of information they want [online]. There are so many things that are free out there. I think kids don’t have the same sense of, ‘Gee, it’s wrong to take something that somebody else wrote.’ The Internet encourages all of us to do that.”
Eric Anderman, a professor of educational psychology at Ohio State University, has studied student cheating. He says while it’s hard to nail down statistics on its prevalence, the best estimate is that up to 85 percent of high school students have cheated at least once.
It’s unclear how digital technology has affected teens’ willingness to cheat, he said. What is clear is that it has made dishonesty a lot easier.
“If you have 30 kids in a classroom, it’s not easy to catch them,” he said. “There’s only so much one person can do. The kids really can get away with it.”
Students interviewed by the Tribune say the Web has made homework a snap. WolframAlpha can instantly solve the most complicated equations, while Yahoo! Answers is a bazaar of solutions. York High School junior Kathleen O’Brien said some students post homework answers on blogs, too.
“Sometimes entire answer sheets for work sheets can be found online,” she said.
As for tests, suburban high school biology teacher Jason Crean said he has heard about students’ texting exam questions to friends who have his class later in the day. In response, he now makes multiple versions of his tests, a step that has doubled or tripled his preparation time.
He said cheating seems to have become a “social obligation” that students strive to meet without considering the harm of their actions – not least to themselves.
“If they learn anything in my class, I want them to learn to do things for themselves,” he said. “That’s a lesson they have to learn for life, and I don’t want them to learn it the hard way after they’ve left. They need to think and solve problems … and the technology is taking away from that.”
Some are trying to find technological solutions to cheating. The College Board, burned by a scandal earlier this year in which Long Island students were paid to take the SAT for others, will soon require students to provide their photographs – typically by digital upload – before taking the test. The photos will later be sent to the test-taker’s high school to thwart any would-be impersonators. The ACT is adopting a similar tactic for those who take the test away from their schools.
Back in the classroom, some teachers rely on turnitin.com, a website that, for $2 per student per year, will check essays against the Internet, 30 million journal articles and 250 million archived student papers to uncover possible plagiarism. Spokesman Chris Harrick said 10,000 schools now use the service.
But Gary Anderson, who teaches English at a high School in Palatine, Ill., said such websites create an atmosphere of mistrust. The better response, he said, is to think up techniques that will foil copying, such as requiring literary essays to include examples from a student’s own life.
“You can prevent so much plagiarism and cheating simply by the kind of assignments we do,” he said. “A three-page assignment you can find on the Internet isn’t an assignment worth doing.”
Math teacher Natalie Jakucyn of Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, Ill., takes a more basic approach – her students must hand in their cellphones before a test – but agrees imaginative long-term solutions are needed.
“What the educator needs to do is adapt to the age of technology and change the question,” she said. “Maybe what [students] are learning should change. Maybe how they’re learning should change. Now the challenge to me is to match that technology and say what I’m doing needs to change.”