Colleges use technology to fight tech-savvy students trying to cheat

ORLANDO — The frontier in the battle to defeat student cheating may be here at the testing center of the University of Central Florida.

No gum is allowed during an exam: Chewing could disguise a student's speaking into a hands-free cell phone to an accomplice outside.

The 228 computers students use are recessed into desktops so anyone trying to photograph the screen — using, say, a pen with a hidden camera, in order to help a friend who will take the test later — is easy to spot.

Scratch paper is allowed — but it is stamped with the date and must be turned in later.

When a proctor sees something suspicious, he records the student's real-time work at the computer and directs an overhead camera to zoom in, and both sets of images are burned onto a CD for evidence.

Taylor Ellis, the associate dean who runs the testing center within the business school at Central Florida, the nation's third-largest campus by enrollment, said that cheating had dropped significantly, to 14 suspected incidents out of 64,000 exams administered during the spring semester.

"I will never stop it completely, but I'll find out about it," he said.

As the temptation of students to cheat has gone high-tech — not just on exams, but by cutting and pasting from the Internet and sharing of homework online like music files — educators have responded with their own efforts to crack down.

This summer, as freshmen fill out forms to select roommates and courses, a number of colleges — Duke and Bowdoin among them — are also requiring them to complete online tutorials about plagiarism.

The University of South Florida has used such a tutorial and is now revising it.

Anti-plagiarism services requiring students to submit papers to be vetted for copying is also a booming business. Fifty-five percent of colleges and universities now use such a service, according to the Campus Computing Survey.

The most popular anti-cheating technology, Turnitin.com, says it is used by 9,500 high schools and colleges. Students submit written assignments to be compared with billions of archived Web pages and millions of other student papers, before they are sent to instructors.

In Tampa Bay, Turnitin.com has licenses with institutions of higher learning encompassing more than 50,000 college students, plus 20 to 30 middle and high schools, according to vice president of marketing Katie Povejsil. The company does not publicly disclose the names of its schools without permission but encourages clients to let students know that they use Turnitin.com.

St. Petersburg College uses Turnitin.com. USF has used it, but now uses a similar service called SafeAssign. Administrators said it seems to discourage plagiarism, and when problems do turn up some instructors use them as teaching opportunities by allowing students to re-write the work in question.

Generally, USF sees fewer than 100 cases per year where students receive failing grades because of academic dishonesty.

"It can be fewer than 50," said Janet Moore, associate dean of undergraduate studies, though she acknowledged administrators know there are more cases of academic dishonesty than those formally processed by the university.

Beyond SafeAssign, USF is trying to promote academic integrity by telling students that misusing technology to plagiarize or cheat is the first decision they'll make in their professional lives.

"We are really serious about changing the culture," said Diane Williams, senior director of USF's Center for 21st Century Teaching Excellence.

The extent of student cheating, difficult to measure precisely, appears widespread at colleges. In surveys of 14,000 undergraduates over the last four years, an average of 61 percent admitted to cheating.

The figure declined somewhat from 65 percent earlier in the decade, but the researcher who conducted the surveys, Donald L. McCabe, a business professor at Rutgers, doubts there is less of it. Instead, he suspects students no longer regard certain acts as cheating at all, for instance, cutting and pasting a few sentences at a time from the Internet.

Andrew Daines, who graduated in May from Cornell, where he served on a board that heard cheating cases, said Internet plagiarism was so common that professors told him they had replaced written assignments with tests and in-class writing.

Daines said he was especially disturbed by students copying homework. "The term 'collaborative work' has been taken to this unbelievable extreme where it means, because of the ease of e-mailing, one person looking at someone else who's done the assignment," he said.

At MIT, David E. Pritchard, a physics professor, was able to accurately measure homework copying with software he had developed for another purpose — to allow students to complete sets of physics problems online. Some answered the questions so fast, "at first I thought we had some geniuses here at MIT," Pritchard said. Then he realized they were copying the answers — mostly, it turned out, from e-mail messages from friends who had already done the assignment.

Students who copy homework find answers at sites like Course Hero, which is a kind of Napster of homework sharing, where students from more than 3,500 institutions upload papers, class notes and past exams.

Turnitin.com is engaged in an endless cat-and-mouse game with technologically savvy students who try to outsmart it. "The Turnitin algorithms are updated on an ongoing basis," the company warned last month in a blog post titled "Can Students 'Trick' Turnitin?"

Cheaters trying to outfox Turnitin have tried many tricks, some described in blogs and videos. One is to replace every "e" in plagiarized text with a foreign letter that looks like it, such as a Cyrillic "e," meant to fool Turnitin's scanners. Another is to use the Macros tool in Microsoft Word to hide copied text. Turnitin says neither scheme works.

Some educators have rejected anti-cheating technologies on the grounds they presume students are guilty.

Washington & Lee University, for example, concluded several years ago that Turnitin was inconsistent with the school's honor code, "which starts from a basis of trusting our students," said Dawn Watkins, vice president for student affairs.

For similar reasons, some students at the University of Central Florida objected to the testing center with its eye-in-the-sky video in its early days, Ellis said.

But last week during final exams after a summer semester, almost no students voiced such concerns. Rose Calixte, a senior, was told during an exam to turn her green Calvin Klein cap backward, a rule meant to prevent students from writing notes under the brim. She disapproved of the fashion statement but didn't knock the reason: "This is college. There is the possibility for people to cheat."

A first-year MBA student, Ashley Haumann, said that as an undergraduate at the University of Florida, "everyone cheated" in her accounting class of 300 by comparing answers during quizzes. She preferred the highly monitored testing center because it "encourages you to be ready for the test because you can't turn and ask, 'What'd you get?' "

But one of the testing center's most recent cheating cases had nothing to do with the Internet, cell phones or anything tech at all. A heavily tattooed student was found with notes written on his arm. He had blended them into his body art.

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report.

Colleges use technology to fight tech-savvy students trying to cheat 07/09/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 9, 2010 11:37pm]

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