Thursday, May 03, 2007

Is cheating ever worth the bother? 

An article in today's StarTribune talks about using iPods for cheating. Electronic cheating has been around since the first Texas Instruments or HP programmable calculator went into a classroom. The cures are quite simple, though:
Timothy Dodd, executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University, said that as far as he knows, no studies have been done on how often students use iPods or other personal digital media to cheat....

"Teachers and faculty have grown with the technology," he said. "When we were in school, we were told to close our books and put our notes away. Now students are told to turn off their cell phones, put the PDAs [small hand-held computers] away and put the iPods away."

Even gadgets such as calculators, which have become increasingly sophisticated and are capable of holding downloaded material such as class notes, have to be watched. [Computer science professor Annette] Schoenberger said some St. Cloud professors ask students to bring their calculators in an hour before an exam to remove any suspect memory.

Jane Kirtley, the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the U, said her students won't have any questions about what to bring to finals next week. She bans electronic devices from use in her classroom all the time. Cell phones are to be turned off, iPods invisible and laptop computers closed.

Students take notes by hand. If a cell phone goes off, students know they are to leave and not return until the next class period.

I had not tried the trick of bouncing out of class students whose cellphones ring; I think I'll have to try that now. The most common form of cheating, however, is the old-fashioned kind of someone trying to get a copy of the test. Even that can be digital now, with cellphone cameras able to beam a copy of my test given at 8am to the 9am classmate. But scrambling answers and the order of the questions -- something also made easier by technology -- is effective as a deterrent. I hear far more cases of plagiarism -- again, made easier to do and to detect via newer technologies -- than I do of cheating on exams.

Yet my overriding impression from university life is that cheating is almost never worth the bother. The one time I had a final exam stolen from my office, about twenty years ago, I happened to have a backup in a file cabinet; it was an old exam that I had not shared with students as preparation for their final. Easy enough, I went over to the print shop and had 70 whipped up. The reddening face of the guilty party was pleasure enough for me, and the fellow did fail the exam and course without ever having to prove he had stolen the test. Perhaps math, computer science, or language exams are easier to cheat on, but in economics I have yet to see it pay off for someone.