Web makes it easier for cheaters to prosper

  • July 14, 2010
Spurred on by new technology, particularly the Internet, cheating in Canadian high schools and post-secondary institutions is evolving to the point that students and teachers differ over what qualifies as cheating, according to research recently released by the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL).

According to the CCL study, nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of first-year students across Canada admitted to committing one or more serious acts of academic dishonesty on written work while in high school (including cheating on essays or assignments) and nearly 60 per cent admitted to serious acts of cheating on tests in high school. The survey included 20,000 students at 11 post-secondary education institutions.

It’s hard to know how much this represents a true increase in wrongdoing, since much cheating is never detected. At first glance, it’s easy to support the notion that the Internet is responsible for the increase. News reports about the study cited the web as a major factor in the growth of plagiarism. Obviously the sheer speed of copying and pasting information from a web site to another application makes plagiarism faster and easier, but it also makes it possible to quickly present research material while fully identifying its source. It’s up to teachers and parents to emphasize the difference. Presenting someone else’s work as your own is always wrong. The Internet does not cause the misrepresentation, any more than pens and pencils force students to copy history dates or math formulas on their palms.

Apart from plagiarism, the study found some interesting differences between how students and their teachers evaluate dishonesty. In two particular areas — working with others when individual work had been requested and receiving help on assignments when it wasn’t permitted — a majority of students classed the behaviour as “not cheating” or “trivial cheating,” while only 27 per cent of faculty saw it that way. Some of this disconnect may relate to a general growth in moral maturity that we would hope to see as people get older. However, it may be that the wired world, with its constant texting, cell calls and easy downloads, is contributing to confusion about what is “help” and what is normal interaction.

As the CCL study notes and all parents know, this generation takes the wired world for granted. They have grown up with it and use most of the social networking tools as easily as they might use a TV set or car radio. Much of this is a good thing, since it makes it easier to stay in touch with friends and faster to find the knowledge needed to complete assignments and generally fulfill school requirements. It would be difficult to complete high school or university today without reliable, plentiful access to a personal computer.  

For all age groups, the web is increasingly how we acquire and distribute knowledge. It is up to parents and educators to impart the wisdom, particularly the moral wisdom, to use the tools well and ethically. Given the possibility of dishonesty and even criminal activity, guidance is particularly needed with the use of networking sites. As useful as they are, important messages should only be delivered in person, as many have learned the hard way.

There is also the whole range of security and privacy issues that have been ably documented. An IPSOS Reid survey of Canadian parents, commissioned by Trend Micro and issued in May, found that 85 per cent were most concerned about the “online over-sharing” of personal information by their teenagers among online friends and strangers. The concern slightly outweighed that of accessing inappropriate content such as violence or pornography.  

Guidance from parents and educators is the only real answer to some of these problems, but that can be an interesting proposition when so many of us don’t know much about social networking applications and, indeed, rely on our children to help us navigate the newer technologies. But like so many aspects of family life, Internet guidance will usually go better in households where education in morality and safety have been part of day-to-day living all along.

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