CHICAGO -- Heloise Pechan's heart rose when she read the essay one of her students, a seemingly uninterested high school sophomore, had turned in for a class assignment on To Kill a Mockingbird. The paper was clear, logical and well-written -- a sign, she thought, that she had gotten through to the boy.
Her elation passed quickly. What came next was suspicion.
Pechan, then substitute-teaching at a McHenry County, Ill., high school, went to Google, typed the paper's first sentence ("Kind and understanding, strict but fair, Atticus Finch embodies everything that a father should be") and there it was: The entire essay had been lifted from an online paper mill.
"I went from amazement and excitement to 'Oh my God' in the space of a half-second," Pechan recalled recently.
That feeling is going around a lot these days. As technology puts massive computing power and the near-sum of human knowledge within a few taps of a touch screen, educators and students say young people are finding new and increasingly devious ways to cheat.
They're going to websites that calculate the answers for their math homework. They're snapping covert photographs of exams and forwarding them to dozens of friends. They're sneaking cheat sheets into the memory banks of their calculators.
Isha Jog, 17, a senior at Hoffman Estates High School, said she has even seen some of her peers getting quiz answers off their cellphones -- while the quiz is in progress.
At the same time, technology is also helping to foil digital desperadoes. Teachers are running essays though automated plagiarism detectors. They're using wireless systems that allow them to observe what students are doing with their classroom calculators. And they're using programs to shuffle test questions so every class gets a different version.
Still, experts say cheaters have the upper hand, leaving some educators to look for teaching techniques that are harder to game. But in the file-sharing, cut-and-paste world the Internet enables, some say the biggest challenge might be convincing students what they're doing is wrong.
"I definitely think there's a mindset problem," said Carol Baker, curriculum director for science and music in Oak Lawn-based School District 218 and president of the Illinois Science Teachers Association. "Today, kids are used to obtaining any kind of information they want (online). There are so many things that are free out there. I think kids don't have the same sense of, 'Gee, it's wrong to take something that somebody else wrote.' The Internet encourages all of us to do that."
Eric Anderman, a professor of educational psychology at the Ohio State University, has studied student cheating. He says while it's hard to nail down statistics on its prevalence, the best estimate is up to 85 per cent of high school students have cheated at least once.
It's unclear how digital technology has affected teens' willingness to cheat, he said. What is clear is it has made dishonesty a lot easier.
"If you have 30 kids in a classroom, it's not easy to catch them," he said. "There's only so much one person can do. The kids really can get away with it."
Suburban high school biology teacher Jason Crean said he has heard about students texting exam questions to friends who have his class later in the day. In response, he now makes multiple versions of his tests, a step that has doubled or tripled his preparation time.
He said cheating seems to have become a "social obligation" students strive to meet without considering the harm of their actions -- not least to themselves.
"If they learn anything in my class, I want them to learn to do things for themselves," he said. "That's a lesson they have to learn for life, and I don't want them to learn it the hard way after they've left. They need to think and solve problems... and the technology is taking away from that."
Some teachers rely on turnitin.com, a website that, for $2 per student per year, will check essays against the Internet, 30 million journal articles and 250 million archived student papers to uncover possible plagiarism. Spokesman Chris Harrick said 10,000 schools now use the service.
But Gary Anderson, who teaches English at Fremd High School in Palatine, Ill., said such websites create an atmosphere of mistrust. The better response, he said, is to think up techniques that will foil copying, such as requiring literary essays to include examples from a student's own life.
"You can prevent so much plagiarism and cheating simply by the kind of assignments we do," he said. "A three-page assignment you can find on the Internet isn't an assignment worth doing."
-- Chicago Tribune