The high-tech war on cheating

Some universities are employing cloak-and-dagger techniques to combat cheating. Is there a better way?

Cheating at college has gone high-tech, and some universities are starting to fight fire with fire. From aerial surveillance cameras to plagiarism-fighting websites, professors are able to catch would-be cheaters in the act — or discourage them from even trying. National studies show that a worrisome 61 percent of undergraduates say they cheat on tests and homework, but that's down from 65 percent a few years ago, and the figure is much lower at the most aggressive anti-cheating schools. What's the most effective way to stamp out cheating?

What's behind the cheating epidemic?

Cheating has long been a problem on college campuses, and its pervasiveness has been fed by technology — the Internet, ubiquitous cell phones, and cheap consumer electronics have made it easier to share test answers and essays. But some experts also speculate that given how often music, images, and words get copied on the Web without attribution, many of today's students don't understand that plagiarism and other forms of borrowing information are, in fact, cheating.

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What are some of the ways undergrads cheat?

Students have been caught getting test answers via covert cell phone conversations, or photographing test questions for friends with spy-size cameras. Less risky methods include visiting websites that post answers from popular textbooks or stock pre-written papers to download. Many students also have been caught copying a sentence or two verbatim from Wikipedia or another website. Some cases are more low-tech — students are still being caught using time-tested methods such as writing answers on an arm.

What tools are schools using to fight that?

The University of Central Florida, at "the frontier in the battle to defeat student cheating," has exam rooms with cheat-resistant computers built into the desks and surveillance cameras that let test proctors zoom in on suspect students and record any proof of cheating to a CD. Similar high-tech methods are being employed at other schools. "You can use technology as well for detecting as for committing" cheating, says MIT physics professor David Pritchard.

What about outside of monitored classrooms?

About 9,500 colleges and high schools use an anti-plagiarism service called, which checks written assignments against billions of of web pages and other students' papers. New sites and techniques designed to thwart Turnitin — like changing all e's to a look-alike Cyrillic letter — crop up continuously like "a particularly nasty virus," says Erin Millar in Maclean's. But at some point, the schemes "are time-consuming enough to hardly seem worth it," says Gizmodo's Brian Barrett.

Why don't all universities use these techniques?

Not all schools think going to "DEFCON-1" on cheating is best for their students or faculty, and think they undermine the trust that's supposed to develop between the two. Plus, notes Maclean's Millar, some of the techniques are "enough to creep out the civil libertarian" in many administrators and students. Some colleges prefer gentler alternatives, such as making enrolling freshman take online plagiarism courses before showing up on campus, or offering such courses on a voluntary basis. And at least one study shows that this "elegantly simple technological fix" works: Plagiarism dropped by two-thirds among those who took the tutorial at one college. Colleges could also "just go back to the old days of spoken exams, an ordeal that's hard to fake," suggests Charlie White at Dvice. That way students might actually study "rather than trying to outsmart the cheating police."

Sources: New York Times, Gizmodo, Maclean's, Dvice, Fox News

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