How Schools Handle High-Tech Cheating

What parents can do to help.

To most, it is a shoe organizer, usually hung from a closet door, purchased for about $5 at Target or Walmart. The kind that has numerous pouches, enabling you to stuff high heels or running shoes in an individual pocket so they don’t take over the closet floor.

At Tulsa’s Edison Preparatory School, the hanging shoe organizer serves another purpose. Upon entering a classroom, students relinquish their cell phones to their designated numbered pouch on the organizer. A simple, innovative solution some Edison teachers use to enforce the school’s classroom cell phone policy that disallows students from using their phone in class unless a teacher tells them otherwise.

Why the stringent classroom cell phone rules in class? According to a 2009 national survey by Common Sense Media & Benson Strategy Group entitled Hi-Tech Cheating: Cell Phones and Cheating in Schools, 35 percent of students admitted they were using cell phones to cheat in class and more than half admit to using the Internet to cheat. More importantly, the survey points out that many students don’t consider their actions to be cheating at all.

While technology tools such as cell phones, computers and high tech calculators provide methods for students to gather instantaneous information, when used for the wrong purposes, these tools can tempt a student to take the simple and sometimes unethical route when faced with a test, homework or paper. Technology has created sophisticated methods for students to cheat, unlike in the past when students resorted to scribbling notes on their hands or shoes. Instead of straining their neck to catch a glimpse of their classmate’s test on the desk in front of them, students now casually glance at a picture of their class notes stored on a cell phone resting in their lap.

Most cheating tactics used today in school were nonexistent 10 years ago.  Smartphones allow students to take pictures of notes or tests and, with the click of a button, share that material with as many friends as they choose. A student can now cut and paste information from the Internet into their paper or even purchase a paper on their assigned topic through an Internet-based clearinghouse for term papers. And students can store math formulas in memory banks of calculators to use during a math or science test.

Is technology enabling students to take the easy way out of schoolwork and, more importantly, hindering critical thinking and academic prowess? Students can now post homework answers on blogs, and websites offer quick answers to math problems. Why visit the school library when you can instantly access Wikipedia?

According to the Common Sense survey, 41 percent of teens say that storing notes on a cell phone to access during a test is a serious cheating offense, while 23 percent don’t think it’s cheating at all. And, 45 percent of teens say that texting friends about answers during tests is a serious cheating offense, while 20 percent say it’s not cheating at all. The line between cheating and student collaboration has become blurred. While technology offers a massive amount of material with just a click, what students do with that information and how they use that information is up to them.

Schools Struggle to Stay Ahead of the Curve

Longtime Holland Hall teacher and current Upper School Dean of Students, Richard Spencer, is direct about technology, such as cell phones, in the hands of students. “It has complicated my life exponentially.” Spencer admits he is still trying to embrace technology, but he understands its benefits for both teachers and students.

You don’t want to use a Draconian method of handling how students use cell phones and computers in school, he said. “But, we have to stay ahead of how students utilize these devices and that is not always easy. Basically, unethical use of technology in school has gone from zero to 100 over the past several years.”

In Holland Hall’s Upper School, students must have their cell phones put away in class unless a teacher requests they have them out to assist in a discussion or assignment.

“The problem is not so much in the classroom, it is when a student makes the wrong decision and everything escalates,” Spencer said. “For instance, a student takes a picture of notes or a test and texts the picture to friends. Now we have a bigger problem.  It is not just one student making a wrong choice. It could mean multiple students doing the wrong thing. Basically, things have not changed, just the way students do things has changed. Kids have always made the wrong decisions, not thinking ahead and realizing the consequences. Today, they are using technology to cheat not realizing the evidence is right there on their phone or their friend’s phone.”

Spencer said Holland Hall administration is constantly assessing the school’s cell phone and technology policies in order to stay ahead of the curve. “Kids are so quick to find new ways of doing things and are on top of all the latest applications,” he said.

“I try to talk with students and help them realize the importance of making right choices. It used to be kids wasted time playing cards or chess in the commons or just talking between classes. Now they sit next to each other and text each other.  We would love to see two students playing chess today,” Spencer laughed.

Cheating, said Spencer, is cheating, no matter how the methods to cheat have evolved. “It is academic dishonesty, and we address it the way we have always addressed it.

“Students now have their entire life right there in their hand, on their phone.  Trust and conduct issues are becoming longer and larger because of technology.  We work to forge a partnership with our students and their parents to make sure they understand the proper uses of technology in school and our cell phone policy,” he said.

If an Edison student is abusing the school’s cell phone policy, the phone can be confiscated and held in the school office. Edison Principal Derrick Schmidt said parents are usually not too happy when they have to come to school to claim their child’s phone.

“Parents want their child to have a phone so they can always be in touch with them. And we understand that. But, on the other hand, phones have become a distraction in school, so we have put in place policies to deter that distraction. We work to find a balance for both teachers and for our parents,” Schmidt explained.

The hanging shoe organizer on a classroom door is one way to keep phones from distracting students in class. Some teachers opt for a basket on their desk in which students place their phones when they enter the classroom. And some teachers merely ask that students put their phones out of sight, whether in a pocket or backpack.

The Common Sense Media report found 69 percent of schools had “anti-cell phone” policies, but more than half of the kids ignored those policies. Most schools, stated the survey, require students to have their cell phone off during class, and some teachers confiscate phones during tests.

A Balancing Act

While Tulsa Public School’s policy allows students to have cell phones on campus, it is up to individual schools and teachers to establish classroom rules. Edison, said Schmidt, has “phone zones,” such as hallways and the lunchroom, where students are allowed to make calls and use their phones.

Technology not used correctly does impede academic integrity, Schmidt said. “We want our students to develop good skills. But, because of technology, when it comes to educating kids, we have to become more savvy teachers. The biggest issue we work with is helping students realize the importance of integrity and work ethic. We want students to explore and do their own work. We have to create ways to integrate technology into learning without making them feel dependent upon it.”

Edison uses a collective method, combining input from administration, teachers and student leaders, to create guidelines on how best to utilize technology tools while making sure students are not compromising their academic integrity through technology overuse.

In regard to using a phone to cheat on a test, Schmidt said, “If there is a will, there is a way. That is how I feel about a student who is driven to cheat. That has not changed over the years. But the way a student cheats has. It is still dishonest and compromises the class and is treated as dishonesty. What we don’t want to do is dismiss technology and ignore that it can be a great teaching tool.”

At Edison, under the code of conduct, cheating is a “level I infraction” and usually a student forfeits that assignment, thus earning a zero or F on the assignment. “A big goose egg” Schmidt said.

Dr. Judith Holt, head of Edison Middle School Curriculum said phones are not allowed in middle school at Edison. “It is cut and dry and really cuts back on so many issues,” she said.

“In middle school we want them to develop skills and knowledge by learning to study, take notes and research. We want them to incorporate technology but not make it their primary source. We try to give them the building blocks to do assignments. While cell phones can be used as an educational tool in the classroom, they cannot replace the use of books and notes.”

The Plagiarism Problem

Edison Assistant High School Principal Rachael Stacy-McAnany said teachers, now more than ever, must utilize a variety of methods to assess a student’s ability and schoolwork.

“We now pay attention to more things when it comes to grading a student, such as how they take notes and if they take notes. We grade the student on the process rather than on one end result,” Stacy-McAnany said. “If we have students check in regularly with their paper as they are writing it, they are less likely to plagiarize. They are working over a period of time to create the assignment, thus not rushed.”

Susan Griffin chaired the Edison English Department for eight years and feels plagiarism has become a huge problem in school.

“Students copy and paste and turn it in not realizing they are using eight-syllable words that they do not even know,” she joked. “We recognize similarities in student’s papers and can tell a student’s writing voice versus one that just does not seem right.”

Edison now subscribes to the online plagiarism checker WriteCheck from Turnitin. A teacher submits a student’s paper to WriteCheck via file upload or cut-and-paste and the text matching software checks for originality in a database of over 45 billion pages of digital content.

“Our rationale for doing this,” Schmidt said, “is that plagiarism is becoming significant. We do have an academic integrity policy. But, students find a way to get by and test the waters.”

“Kids have become so adept at searching so quickly,” Griffin said. “They are trained without any sort of process. What they lack now is the ability to comb through the information and formulate original thought. They are not accustomed to truly researching and thinking when all they have to do now is type in a word in Google search and up comes a bunch of information.”

Holland Hall Junior Pete Kelly said that while technology has made it easier to research a topic, it has also made it easier to cheat. “But, the catch is, technology has made it easier to get caught. Usually, technology leaves a trail.”

Kelly serves on Holland Hall’s Upper School Student-Faculty Honor Council, composed of elected students and an equal number of elected faculty, who meet with students who have violated major school rules. The Honor Council is given the responsibility of recommending appropriate consequences to the dean, subject to the approval of the Head of the Upper School.

Kelly said that when students go before the honor council, they first explain their side of the situation, and then the council asks them questions about what transpired.

“The Honor Council does not have a punitive focus. We work with the student so that the mistake or infraction does not happen again,” he said.

Holland Hall Junior and Honor Council member Anna Shale said the point of the Honor Council is not to give a blanket punishment for a student infraction.  “Punishments can range from losing certain student privileges, serving community service hours on campus or not being able to attend social events at the school. If it involves cheating, the outcome is usually an F on the assignment or test.”

A student, said Kelly, must really think long and hard about how that F affects his or her grade in that class, the school transcript and even college acceptance. “So many times the student was not thinking of the outcome, but instead reacting to not being prepared for the test.”

The Honor Council has addressed students who have used technology such as computers or cell phones to cheat. “Students have texted each other a study guide or a picture of the actual test and used that information while taking a test. It is kind of obvious to a teacher when a student keeps on looking in their lap throughout a test. The odds are they have something on their phone that is helping them on the test,” Kelly said.

As for plagiarism, Shale said that from early on at Holland Hall students are made aware of what constitutes plagiarism. “By the time we get into the Upper School, we know what sources we can use and how to use them. Some students plagiarize on purpose and usually the main excuse is they just did not have enough time to write the paper because they had too much homework or outside activities.”

How Parents Can Help

Tulsa CAPES (Child & Adolescent Program Enrichment Services) team member Lynn Purdie said children feel so much pressure to achieve in school and are overscheduled with activities outside of school that they are left with little time to focus on schoolwork in the evening.

Academic stress can lead a child to distort what is academically right or wrong.  Parents, Purdie said, must be attuned to know when their child has taken on too much. “Don’t always think that just because everyone is allowing their child to do an activity or have a particular piece of technology that it is right for your child.”

At CAPEs Purdie conducts “Social Groups” for parents on how to talk to their children about proper use of technology in social settings and at school. She also leads social groups for children on the same issues.

“The problem with technology and children today is that we give them these tools before they are ready to understand what these devices do and what they can do with them. Parents want kids to have a phone but do not take in to account what a distraction it can be,” Purdie said. “Kids put the phone on silent, but it lights up or vibrates when their friends text them. So they think the teacher does not know they are texting or interacting with a friend during class.”

Parents must model proper use of phones and should not hesitate to set up technology rules in the house. “I recommend creating a cell phone contract with your child and make sure they understand the appropriate uses of phones at home, socially and at school,” she said. “A child must read the contract and sign it. There must be consequences in the household for improper use of phones or technology. Taking the phone away for a period of time might be a way to get your child’s attention. Basically we are the first group of parents trying to parent our children through this technology surge. We do not have any precedent. We are trying to figure out what we do as we go along.”

Other steps parents can take to ensure their child knows how to steer ethically through the digital world is review their child’s school policies on technology use and plagiarism. And parents should never hesitate to check their child’s phone if they suspect an issue.

Categories: Tweens & Teens