Cheats seldom prosper ... but they do graduate

Technology has made cheating commonplace, but Justin Thomas wonders if it will also prove to be the solution.

What's the solution to cheating? (Jeff Topping / The National)
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Cheats never prosper. If only it were true. One article in Research in Higher Education suggests that, among North American college students, the rate of cheating lies somewhere between 40 and 80 per cent. If cheats didn’t prosper, then graduation ceremonies would be very poorly attended.

A recent UAE study on cheating, reported in this newspaper, suggests that cheating in exams is fairly prevalent here too. The study in question involved giving high-school students a quiz and telling them not to turn the paper over, because the answers were on the other side. Twelve per cent of girls took a peek, but a staggering 82 per cent of boys did too.

Of course, cheating on exams is not the only form of academic dishonesty. Plagiarism is rampant. Furthermore in an attempt to beat the plagiarism detection software, you can now even buy custom-written, “100 per cent plagiarism-free”, essays. One website, allhomework.net, has the strapline “any homework any time”.

The menu of services on such sites extends to hiring experts to sit exams for you – guaranteed pass or your money back.

This is just one example of a growing, global online industry. Perusing the many websites offering academic dishonesty services, I’m left thinking: how is offering to sell essays and take tests for other people even legal? And if it isn’t legal, then how can these companies be so brazen about it?

There is no doubt that the internet has facilitated a plague of plagiarism. The information super highway attracts a new breed of highwaymen, and nowhere is this more evident than in our schools and universities. Those who study academic dishonesty conclude that cheating has become endemic. It’s like academic dishonesty has reached the point where some faculty feel compelled to turn a blind eye, and some honest students feel forced to engage in dishonesty or run the risk of being left behind – we have reached a tipping point.

But if today’s young minds become accustomed to academic dishonesty, what effect will this have on tomorrow’s society? Will we see a decline in creativity and intellect? As our phones get smarter, will we get dumber? What hope is there for ethical business, if tomorrow’s leaders used to buy their essays and pay people to sit exams for them?

But just as the means of deception are facilitated by information technology, so too are the means of detecting and deterring. One idea we are currently playing with is the use of eye-tracking glasses. These glasses track and record, with pinpoint accuracy, everything you look at. In an exam situation, even the tiniest glance at a smart watch would be detected and recorded. The glasses could even perform a retinal scan to ensure the test-taker was who they claimed to be. Eye tracking glasses are expensive now, but in five years time they won’t be.

But is it really the role of a college professor to act as a digital forensics investigator, treating each exam and essay as a potential crime scene? Furthermore, in the rapidly evolving cyber world there will always be some emerging technology claiming to help cheats prosper.

This is a dangerous trend that undermines the meaning of education and the future of our societies.

Part of the problem is that we are operating in the information age, with industrial age mindsets. We need to think differently about education in general and assessment in particular. A team at Zayed University recently published one of our own ideas in the journal: Innovations in Education and Teaching International. Our idea was to use of a special form of group-based oral examination, where plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty were just not possible. This is a great example of a low-tech medieval solution to a high-tech, information age problem. Innovation needn’t always be digital, sometimes it helps to look backwards as well as forwards.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University and author of Psychological Well-Being in the Gulf States

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas