50 shades of cheating: Defining right and wrong in the digital age
by Cameron Steele
Oct 07, 2012 | 5644 views |  0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Illustration: AnnaMaria Jacob/The Anniston Star
Illustration: AnnaMaria Jacob/The Anniston Star
¿Puedo ir al bano?

That’s “Can I go to the bathroom?” in Spanish — the only phrase that a local high school senior really remembers from his two years of foreign language class.

The 17-year-old took the course during his sophomore and junior years.

For homework, he and his classmates had to translate English sentences into Spanish — or vice versa. They were supposed to first attempt the work themselves, he said, without any help.

Instead, everyone “cheated,” and nobody learned much more than the basic phrases.

“Everyone just used Google translator,” he admitted. “Most everyone did it — at least once or twice — including myself.”

(The Star is not identifying the student in order to protect his chances of getting into college.)

Cheaters trending

Cheating among students has been a hot topic in recent months with proof of widespread dishonest behavior surfacing at well-known institutions like Harvard and the Air Force Academy.

Also contributing to the conversation are several recent studies that show students across the country are cheating more than ever before — especially as new technology becomes increasingly available.

Administrators and teachers in Calhoun County say they haven’t seen a significant increase in cheating in recent years. And education officials think their institutions have clear “academic honesty” policies in place.

Still, some local and national experts say cheating isn’t always a black-and-white issue, especially with the prevalence of new technology.

“Just like in sports, you have to define the rules on what you’re able to do,” said Mark Jones, judicial coordinator for Jacksonville State University.

Nationally, 60 percent of high school students admit to some form of cheating, according to a 2010 survey by the Josephson Ethics Institute.

Locally, school officials say cheating isn’t a big problem.

At JSU, Jones said, the judicial affairs committee only sees about five cases of academic dishonesty each year.

In Calhoun County schools, superintendent Joe Dyar cited only one instance of cheating — at White Plains Middle School — that he remembered occurring in the past year.

Meanwhile, the Donoho Honor Council has not met at all this year to deal with any suspect student behavior, council sponsor Beverly Otwell said. Otwell, an English teacher at the Anniston private school, said it’s been years since someone plagiarized in her class.

Anniston City Schools Superintendent Joan Frazier said cheating happens in her school system but didn’t have numbers on how often it occurred.

Repeated attempts last week to reach officials at Oxford and Jacksonville city schools were unsuccessful.

“Unfortunately, we have to be vigilant about the possibility of cheating,” Frazier said. “It takes place everywhere.”

More technology, more cheating?

A recent Duquesne University study shows that cheating “takes place everywhere” there is access to digital tools.

College students who have access to the Internet and smartphones are more likely to cheat than those who don’t, the 2010 report found.

Additionally, some local and national education leaders say new technology can expand the cheating “gray area” — where it’s unclear what actions actually constitute dishonesty and require discipline.

JSU’s policy on cheating was recently updated to address new technology.

“We have suspended students, specifically in online courses, where someone else has done the work for them,” Jones said.

In Calhoun County, a new “bring your own device” policy encourages students to bring smartphones, tablets, laptops and e-readers to class for learning. The practice has “brought forth more awareness to the proper use of electronic devices,” Dyar said.

The county superintendent said that there has only been one instance of “inappropriate use” in the wake of the new policy.

But overall, “in the modern age, cheating has become so much easier,” said Michael Josephson, president of the California-based group that surveyed high school students about their cheating habits. “They get used to it. It’s all over the Internet.”

Explicit expectations

Most agree that while some actions — copying answers from a friend during an in-class test, for example — plainly violate academic policy, others are not so apparent.

For example, is it cheating to use an online translator to help with Spanish homework, as Dylan said he did?

“That could be one (gray area),” Jones said. “That depends on how the teacher presented the project.”

What about asking Siri — the Apple iPhone voice technology feature — to answer a question on a history class assignment? And what constitutes cheating on a group project, when multiple students are responsible for various aspects of the work?

Administrators have different approaches when it comes to cheating, but most agree that specificity is one of the ways to avoid the gray area, especially in the digital age.

“The students are taught, page by page, the code of conduct in the first week of school,” Frazier said of Anniston schools’ procedures.

At JSU, freshmen are now offered a 101-level class that schools them on the university’s academic dishonesty policy. Donoho officials use an honor pledge to remind students not to cheat or plagiarize.

Richard Bateman, a Donoho student, said he has never knowingly cheated and doesn’t think there are many gray areas when it comes to cheating.

Recently, though, he and his lab partner turned in the same report “because we thought that we were supposed to, but we weren’t,” Bateman said. “We were given the opportunity to redo it due to the confusion.”

Up-front conversations about expectations for various work helps Donoho teachers avoid any vagueness about assignments, according to Otwell, the school’s Honor Council sponsor.

White Plains High School senior Hunter Gentry said his teachers are also explicit about when it’s acceptable for students to use the Internet on the laptops they bring to school.

For example, the 17-year-old said last week his English class was encouraged to search online for ghost story ideas as they prepare to write their own spooky tales to feature in The Star.

On the other hand, students understand they are not allowed to use the Internet to, say, search for answers during a math test or plagiarize a paper.

“The Internet is a good source to help you out,” Gentry said. “We know what we’re not supposed to do.”

‘Pointless to cheat’

Easy access to the Internet and other technology also makes it easier for teachers to catch students who break the rules, officials say.

Online plagiarism checkers, for instance, can help teachers quickly scan for copied sentences in papers.

And a quick Google search lets a teacher check up on where a student is getting a source for a group project or presentation.

“We did not used to have any tools like that,” Otwell said. “If I suspected a person of plagiarizing,” it took a long time to actually find proof of it.

And even students who do get away with something, such as using online translators to complete their Spanish homework, end up reaping the consequences. They come away with ‘F’s on in-class exams and presentations.

That’s why Dylan said his experiment with Google Translate only happened once or twice and why he now struggles through his pre-calculus and science homework without using the answer booklets.

“I need to actually learn the material,” he said. “It’s pointless to cheat all the way through high school.”

Star Assistant Metro Editor Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star.
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50 shades of cheating: Defining right and wrong in the digital age by Cameron Steele

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