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Teachers fight high-tech cheaters

High schools get savvy on stopping plagiarism, wayward Net use

When a private Connecticut school's students began taking English and history tests on computers last year, temptations for cheating loomed just keystrokes away.

Teachers and parents feared that students could flip to a stored cache of notes, send instant messages with answers to each other, or go online. As an anticheating measure, Greens Farms Academy spent two days clearing every computer's hard drive before the exams and disabling the connection to the Internet.

''It was a tedious, time-consuming exercise," said Justine Fellows, the school's coordinator of academic technology.

So this year, Greens Farms, a coed school outside Westport, Conn., went high-tech to prevent cheating and purchased software made by Software Secure, a Cambridge company. The software locks a student's computer into a test screen, preventing any wayward keystrokes or mouse maneuvers by a student looking to cut corners. Instead of days, it takes minutes to make the computers cheat-resistant.

As students get more sophisticated in how they cheat, many teachers and administrators are trying to get equally savvy in how they catch the cheaters or prevent dishonesty. They're resorting to anticheating software, new courses that show the perils of plagiarism, old-fashioned honor codes, and even Google, the popular search engine. A high school English teacher in Westwood, for instance, recently Googled a phrase in one student's paper and found it had been taken from a sample essay of an online editing service called www.gradesaver.com.

When it comes to cheating in today's classrooms, ''it's no longer the concern that somebody's going to walk into the bathroom for a hidden textbook or hide a crib sheet of notes under the bill of their cap," said Douglas Winneg, president of Software Secure.

Teachers worry instead about students downloading term papers in seconds, copying words and ideas from the Internet without citation, and zinging answers around a classroom with wireless communications devices, including cellphones.

Nearly three-quarters of US homes have Internet access, and, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost all secondary schools have high-speed access to the Internet. An increasing number of schools issue laptops to students and routinely use computers in lesson plans.

With so much connectivity, it's easy for students to swipe free term papers they find online, cut and paste from different Web pages on any given topic, or buy custom-written papers from Web-based ''paper mills" such as www.schoolsucks.com or www.apex-termpapers.com.

One running list of online paper mills, kept by librarians at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina, began with 35 in 1999 and now lists more than 250.

''Plagiarism in the old days meant actually going and getting a book and copying from it. It's absolutely easier with the Internet," said Jennifer Young, a library media specialist at Norton High School.

Students, she said, often think cutting and pasting a written assignment from websites is ''no big deal," so much so that last year, a girl turned in a science report on diseases she lifted from a website and didn't bother to remove the underlined hyperlinks.

While some schools run suspicious student writing through an Internet search engine, others subscribe to computer antiplagiarism services such as MyDropBox and Turnitin, which once exclusively catered to universities but are rapidly expanding into high schools. Both of these services compare a digital copy of a student's paper to a database of books and journals, an archive of previously submitted papers, and the entire Internet; they send schools a report, color-coding the suspect material and marking links to sources.

According to John Barrie, president and founder of Turnitin, the service receives more than 40,000 papers a day and about 30 percent are red flagged as ''less than original."

A couple of years ago, Sue Moss, a technology teacher at Whitman-Hanson High School in Whitman, submitted about 230 student history and English papers to Turnitin over a semester as part of a project for her master's degree.

The results: More than 50 percent of the students plagiarized. ''I was blown away by the high percentage," said Moss, a teacher for 33 years. Her school now subscribes to the service.

Like many Turnitin subscribers, Young of Norton High said teachers use the service mostly as a means to educate students about academic integrity.

''No teacher wants to catch kids cheating," she said. ''But this way, when you do catch somebody, there's no back and forth. You have a report. It helps in the discussions with the kids and the parents that come later."

Many teachers and school administrators said they find that students generally assume that if material is on the Internet, it's free for the taking.

Bret Cullinan, 17, a senior at Boston College High School agrees.

''A lot of kids do research [the Internet], and many of them don't know how to cite things, and that gets them into trouble with plagiarism," Cullinan said.

Students don't seem to grasp the notion that other people may own those ideas that are so easily accessible on the Internet, said Emily Parks, Westwood High School assistant principal.

Westwood has a Turnitin subscription and an academic integrity policy that students sign off on in every class, but teachers noticed an increase in cheating incidences around mid-year and have been discussing how to ensure that students truly understand what crosses the ethical line, Parks said.

Some school systems in Massachusetts are teaching lessons about plagiarism as part of technology courses, hoping to teach students when they're crossing the line.

The Hudson school district signed on with i-SAFE America, a California-based nonprofit that distributes free, Web-based courses on plagiarism and Internet safety.

The company includes a project in which students write a paper and have somebody use it and take credit for it.

''And now plagiarism has become very personal to them," said Teri Schroeder, i-SAFE's president and founder.

Despite the growth of technical anticheating strategies, some educators say they believe a neglected part of the solution is returning to a traditional honor code, a personal pledge of academic integrity signed by every student.

''What it does is change the entire academic culture, from expecting students to cheat to expecting them not to," said Marian Strangfeld, the fine arts coordinator at Hopkinton High School.

Strangfeld began making her case for a ''student-driven" honor code last year when Hopkinton faculty were discussing expanding their use of Turnitin.

''I just think that everybody has that sense of ethics and this is a way to bring it out," Strangfeld said. ''Maybe the sooner we show some trust in students, the sooner they'll be trustworthy."

At least one student, a senior at Boston's Snowden International School, thought an honor code could work at her school, but only if students played a role in creating it.

''Teachers need to talk about it first, to try and involve students and make them understand the principle of it. Otherwise, they're going to rebel against it," said the student, who noted that her teachers combat cheating by building Internet research time into the class period, eliminating the last-minute panic that can spur cheating.

Connie Thomas, 17, a senior at English High School in Boston, said students often cheat out of desperation, rather than ignorance, and thought teachers should use ''whatever means necessary" to maintain academic integrity.

It surprised Thomas that teachers used electronic antiplagiarism services.

''Are you serious?" Thomas said when told about the anticheating tactic. ''Whoa. I didn't know about that."

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