How Do You Fight Cheating in the Smart Phone Era?

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The New York Times just reported that 71 (!!) students at Stuyvesant, one of New York City’s top high schools, were caught cheating on the state’s Regents exams last month. The cheating took various forms — some exchanged texts with exam information; another took a photo of the test with a smart phone. We all know that cheating is a perpetual fact of academic life (see our report on the cheating problem in Baltimore schools here). But what’s different here is how new technology is enabling students to outsmart teachers and administrators, and to cheat on a much wider scale.

Think of it this way:  when you’re passing notes about an exam, you can probably only reach a couple classmates, max. It’s just too easy to be seen. But when virtual communication enters the picture, information can be shared much more silently — and more widely. And clearly it’s not just a Stuyvesant problem. A 2009 study by Common Sense Media found that more than a third of students with cell phones admitted to using them to cheat, and two-thirds reported that cell phone cheating was an issue in their schools.

At Stuyvesant, as at many schools, cell phones are banned in principle, but students report that teachers usually don’t bother to confiscate them as long as students aren’t flagrant about using them in the classroom. An all-out cell phone ban hardly seems realistic in today’s world where — let’s just admit it — people feel lost without that little device tucked into their pockets. Some schools are fighting cheating technologies with anti-cheating technologies (including exotic sounding things like “text-matching software, webcams, biometric equipment… Web ‘honey pots,’ virtual students, and cheat-proof tests”). Others think it’s just a matter of old-fashioned academic integrity:  “I think it’s a little bit naive to think that that’s going to solve the problem,” Jack Lorenz, principal of a New Jersey high school, told CBS News. “If you have a culture in your school where . . . there is an expectation that students are honest about their academic achievements, where students and the administration promote it, I think you decrease the opportunities for students to cheat.”

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