Teachers, long behind in the cheating arms race, may finally be catching up. They are using new technologies, including text-matching software, webcams, and biometric equipment, as well as cunning stratagems such as Web "honey pots," virtual students, and cheat-proof tests. The result: It appears to be getting at least a little harder for students to plagiarize from websites, text-message answers to friends during tests, or get others to do their homework.
The percentage of students who admit to cheating, which had risen from about 20 percent in the mid-1900s to top 50 percent in 2002, has dropped about 10 percentage points, according to one of the nation's leading cheating experts, Donald McCabe of Rutgers. Some of that recent decline may be because of students redefining "cheating" to exclude the increasingly common practice of cutting and pasting material from the Internet, McCabe believes. But the tide may also be turning, at least in part, because of anticheating technology blitzes like those at the University of Central Florida, where many business students now take their tests on cheat-resistant computers in a new, supersecure testing center. UCF students report much less cheating than students at other campuses. "We've scared the living daylights out of them," explains Taylor Ellis, associate dean for undergraduate programs and technology at UCF's college of business.
Professors at the forefront of the cheating war say they have had to scramble to catch up to youngsters who have proved brilliant at using new technology to get A's without studying. There are hundreds of websites that offer custom-written papers. YouTube has dozens of student-made videos teaching how, for example, to scan a Coke bottle label into a computer, replace the nutrition information with physics notes, and paste the label back onto a bottle to create a cheat aid unlikely to be caught by teachers. And students say it is easy to load notes into cellphones or programmable calculators and sneak peeks at the devices during tests. Some say they've used their devices' infrared, Bluetooth, or texting capabilities to share information with other test takers.
A recent Ohio State University graduate said he often walked into tests with three calculators in his backpack so that he could turn one in if the professor tried to crack down by asking students to turn in their calculators. He said other students hid powerful calculators in the bodies of old, basic ones that are permitted in exams.
"Cheating is super easy now. College classes are way too big, and you can pull out anything on your desk," he says. And it is widespread, he says, because students are busy, hungry for good grades, and often skeptical of the lifetime benefit of learning what many professors put on tests. The student, who worked nearly full-time during school, said it took him only an hour or so to program his calculator with notes. That saved him as much as 20 hours of study time. "I don't really consider what I did cheating...because in the real world I would be using that device...I see that as just being more efficient."
Of course, most schools are still trying to fight cheating by old-fashioned methods, such as appealing to students' sense of fairness. And, in fact, studies show that well-designed and enforced honor codes can make big dents in improper behavior.
Unfortunately, student pledges are not a cure-all. So, instructors and school administrators say they have little choice but to join the technological arms race. The instructors are hoping to encourage students to do their own original work by using:
Antiplagiarism software: Teachers say they are catching a surprising number of plagiarizers by simply Googling unattributed phrases they find in students' papers. Often, they say, they find passages lifted improperly from Wikipedia, free essay sites, or other Web pages.
Several new software companies are giving instructors even more firepower to fight cheating. Turnitin.com, SafeAssign, and a few other new companies have built up databases of millions of school papers, books, articles, and Web pages that they compare against homework. Millions of students around the world now turn in their homework electronically to the companies so that the programs can highlight parts that match other sources. Teachers sign on to the companies' sites to look at the results and decide how much similarity is too much.
These software programs have been boons to professors like Rick Lotspeich, who teaches economics at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. Until ISU signed up for Turnitin.com a few years ago, Lotspeich says he often spent hours in the library trying to document suspicions of student plagiarism. Now, he just clicks on his computer. "The electronic revolution cuts both ways. It makes plagiarism a lot easier, and checking a lot easier," he says.
The software isn't perfect, of course. A group of Virginia high schoolers is suing Turnitin.com for allegedly taking their papers for its own profit without compensating them. This group (and other students) also says the software doesn't work well because it sometimes accuses students who use common phrases or repeat something they themselves happened to write or blog about previously. And some students say they can beat the program by simply replacing every third word or so from copied material. Turnitin officials say that while a good paraphrase of someone else's material might squeak through, programmers have fixed most of the commonly exploited flaws. CEO John Barrie says that the company is making fair use of the students' papers. "Institutions that have used Turnitin for five or more years have, on average, experienced an over 80 percent decrease in levels of unoriginal student work," he claims. And that, he says, "is a significant public good."
Anticheating hardware: The Graduate Management Admission Council announced this summer that it will start testing palm-print readers to make sure students who sign up for the GMAT are the ones who actually take the tests. Peg Jobst, senior vice president of the GMAT program, says upgrading from fingerprints to palms will allow their computers to flag anyone whose current name and palm don't match previous records. Earlier programs that matched photos didn't always work, although several years ago they did catch a man who wore a wig and dressed as a woman, Jobst said. "We know that cheaters invest heavily in technology, so we invest more," she says.
In addition, more universities are requiring online students to install equipment and software that will make it nearly impossible to cheat on tests. Troy University in Alabama encourages online students to install on their home computers a $150 anticheating package that includes a 360-degree webcam so that proctors can remotely monitor all sights and sounds in their rooms and software that locks down computers for anything but tests during exams. Other schools, such as UCF and Penn State, are installing test centers in which students sit at video-monitored desks and complete their exams using computers that have been cheat-proofed by blocking all ports and Internet access.
Gavin Keirans, president of Penn State's student government, remembers feeling dismayed the first time he had to sit at one of the school's video-monitored testing computers. "I wasn't too happy.... It was almost out of the world of 1984." But he and most other students now appreciate the way the center rewards those who study. "I think it deters cheating a great deal," Keirans says.
More tech-savvy professors: Barbara Christe, program director of biomedical engineering technology at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, says she usually catches three or four students a year with her Web "honey pots." She sets up phony Web pages that specifically answer questions in her homework assignments and tests with blatantly out-of-date or inaccurate information. Because they are tailored for her course material, her sites typically show up first in Google searches. It's easy then for Christe to snag those students who took the bait and simply cut and pasted information. Instead of automatically flunking the guilty students (who are typically freshmen), in most cases she tries to use the incidents as a chance to teach how to correctly vet a source.
Christe also often signs up as a student for her own online courses under an assumed name. That way, she says, her alter ego gets many of the E-mails her students send to each other. Occasionally, she's caught students posting answers. More often, she says, she'll see an E-mail from a student complaining or asking for help. Then she'll contact the student and say, "I heard from a student that Assignment 7 is really giving you a challenge," and offer to help.
Tougher monitoring of students: The Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT and AP tests, says it is ratcheting up security. It doesn't allow any food, bottles, or electronic devices, including cellphones, in testing rooms. Penn State's new testing center requires students to take off or turn around any hat with a brim; that's to prevent students from using notes written on the underside of their caps. Students also must take off zipped jackets or sweatshirts—clothing items that offer plenty of cheat-note storage space—before starting tests. UCF's College of Business has banned chewing gum at its secure test center after catching a student hiding a Bluetooth cellphone earpiece behind her long hair and talking to a helper by pretending to chew gum. UCF also plugged up the computers' USB ports after proctors caught a student hiding a flash drive inside a pen.
Cheat-proof homework and tests: A growing number of professors are creating computerized banks of test questions so that they can randomly assign different questions to different students. That way, there's no advantage to looking at a neighbor's paper. In addition, professors are experimenting with timed short essays that can be aced only by students who really know their stuff, since it would take too long to look up the information.
Some professors, such as Indiana State's Lotspeich, require students to turn in outlines and rough drafts before the final paper deadline so that they can see each student's progress. That quickly flags students who might have downloaded completed essays from the Web.
Some professors are even reducing cheating by creating more real-world assignments that point out the stupidity of cheating. Clayton Lewis, a University of Colorado computer science professor, now allows students to collaborate on homework. It's silly to consider that "cheating," he believes. "We're gradually waking up to the fact that in real life, it is all about working together," he says.
Lewis's assignments are often little more than: " 'Think of something you would like to do with a computer, and show me that you could do it.' It isn't going to eliminate cheating, but the incidence is going to be really reduced," he says. After all, Lewis notes: "What's the point of cheating on something you want to do?"