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Technology curbs cheating, fosters collaboration


February 10, 2016

The following article is the second in an eight-part series produced by The Beacon on teen issues. Called “Turn Up The Volume,” the series aims to educate our readers while offering information – and hope – to those needing help.

In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported 88 percent of teens ages 13-17 have access to a cellphone, with 73 percent having access to smartphones and 87 percent having access to a desktop or laptop computer.

The ease of access to information via the Internet and the seemingly constant connection to friends would seem to foster a high school environment ripe for cheating, but it appears to be having the opposite effect.

Local school districts say cheating is a minor problem when compared to other incidents like disruptive behavior and tardiness.

“I would not say it is a major concern or a big, high-profile issue,” Edmonds School District Assistant Superintendent Patrick Murphy said. “That being said, when they do happen, they are a major concern, individually, but it’s not an overall rampant problem.”

There were 157 referrals for formal discipline of high school students in the Edmonds School District during the 2012-13 academic year, compared to 2,809 for disruptive behavior and 1,258 for tardiness. Referrals for cheating made up only 1.3 percent of total disciplinary actions.

Murphy said the current numbers are even lower. From 2013-14, there were 95 incidents, and during 2014-15, 118 incidents were reported.

“This year, we’re at the semester point,” Murphy said, “and we’ve had 31 instances, so we’re on track to have about 62.

“That would be pretty low.”

Murphy admits the ESD numbers are official incidents only, and many teachers are having conversations with students in classrooms before disciplinary actions are taken.

Pat Hegarty, executive director of secondary education for the Mukilteo School District, reported low numbers as well, with an average of 10 to 20 incidents occurring during an academic year.

Murphy said ESD’s low numbers could be attributed to a shift in classroom practices, and technology is helping to cut down on cheating, rather than bolster it.

“I think the nature of school is changing a bit,” Murphy said. “One of the things that I think has happened with the advent of the Internet is that the nature of assignments, tasks and activities that students are doing in the classroom are becoming less solely individualized and much more collaborative.”

Instead of handing out assignments and saying, “Do this on your own,” Murphy said teachers are saying, “We want you to get together with other people and put your ideas together.”

Tests and assessments are not being done away with completely, he said, and there will always be times when teachers want to assess an individual’s abilities and level of understanding.

Hegarty said cheating on tests requires “a degree of stealth” that most students don’t have, and the majority of cheating involves homework assignments being done outside of class.

Both the Edmonds and Mukilteo school districts are using a site called TurnItIn.com, a national web-based tool where students submit assignments online. The assignments are “run through” a huge database to check for plagiarism.

Murphy said use of the site has contributed to students being more thoughtful about citing sources and avoiding the urge to highlight a passage, and “boom, cut and paste and go.”

“Certainly, as the Internet exploded in the past 20 years and has become so central to the working lives of students, it began as a prime source of plagiarism, and wanton sharing and copying through email and file sharing,” Hegarty said.

“Again, over time, while it still is a great means to enable kids to cheat, they have seemed to curb cheating due to the elements noted above [TurnItIn.com].”

Incidents of cheating have decreased over the last five years in MSD, Hegarty said, and sites like TurnItIn.com have been a “very big deterrent.”

Murphy said the advent of technology does bring about the potential for cheating; students could use a cell phone to take a photo of a test and quickly send it to a classmate. He said teachers are aware of this, and they are vigilant.

In most instances, teachers handle first offenses in the classroom, which could result in a loss of points on assignments or a zero for the offending student.

Hegarty said there are a range of consequences from getting a zero on assignment, loss of credit in class, parent contact, discipline referral and disciplinary action or possible loss of athletic eligibility.

“When we discover acts of cheating – academic dishonesty – it is generally a matter of simple time management,” he said. “The student has not adequately set themselves up to manage their academic work in a timely way, and then, in a rush to get the work done, he or she will resort to cheating.”

Other factors that contribute to cheating are a desire to earn points on an assignment, “the more points, the better your grade,” and being given assignments that lend themselves to cheating – fill in the blanks or multiple choice.

When a student is caught once for cheating, Hegarty said, he or she typically does not do it again.

Data from the Edmonds School District supports his assertion – 157 incidents of cheating were committed by 152 students – an almost one-to-one ratio.

“We tend not to get many repeated instances from kids,” Hegarty said.


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