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Doc a chilling look at age of dishonesty

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There's a quaint old bit of folk wisdom that suggests cheaters never prosper.

Current evidence, however, suggests that people who bend, break or just completely ignore rules and laws often do quite well in 21st-century society. And this shift toward a dishonesty-is-the-best-policy attitude is only gaining momentum.

Consider this week's instalment of CBC's Doc Zone, an intriguing and well-presented examination of academic cheating that is appropriately titled Faking the Grade. It's as chilling and discouraging as it is revealing, carrying the suggestion that the reality of today's high school and college environments is that studying hard and following the rules might actually put students who seek honestly achieved good grades at a severe disadvantage.

Faking the Grade, which was produced by Winnipeg-based Merit Motion Pictures and written/directed by local filmmaker Andy Blicq, opens its discussion with the results of a recent survey, in which half the undergraduate students who took part admitted to cheating while in university, and fully 75 per cent said they cheated during their high-school years.

These are startling figures but, as it turns out, not all that surprising, given the ease with which the current generation of students can acquire information and technology that makes cheating on assignments and exams both easy and effective.

This immediate access, combined with increased competition for college-entry spots and post-graduation careers, has created a cycle of behaviour that now seems irreversible.

"The more people cheat, the more it seems normal to cheat," says David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture, a 2004 volume that focuses on the rise of unethical behaviour in America's deregulated business sector. "And the more it feels normal to cheat, the more other people feel that they should cheat, just to keep up with the cheaters."

Faking the Grade examines educational trends on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, assessing the current state of cheater-friendly hardware and online information (it's actually quite creepy to see the gleeful manner in which young YouTube video-makers offer how-to-cheat instructions) and interviewing several people who've actually made a living either cheating directly (by writing essays and exams for others) or instructing others how to cheat.

One case involves a young man who was arrested after using fake student IDs to write SAT (college admission) exams for anyone willing to pay his fee; another features a former college cheater who eventually earned more than $50,000 a year by setting up an online essay-writing service.

Students -- some with their identities hidden, some not -- describe in detail their cheating methods, which range from writing answers on rubber bands and tiny slips of paper tucked inside erasers and pen barrels to scanning smuggled smartphones into exam rooms or asking to use the washroom during tests and then running to the library to use the computer.

It isn't just students who cross ethical lines, either -- narrator Ann-Marie MacDonald also cites a high-profile cheating case in which teachers at an Atlanta school were found to be changing the answers on students' tests in order to produce higher exam scores that boosted the school's reputation and funding.

Finally, as if to offer some small measure of encouraging relief, the film also outlines some of the high-tech gadgetry being used by teachers and academic institutions to catch cheaters. It's an interesting segment, but it feels a lot like the situation facing drug-testing bodies in sports, which are chronically two or three steps behind the cheaters.

Perhaps the most woeful moment in the film is an on-the-street interview with a young married couple, both of whom readily admit that they cheated their way through school in order to get the degrees and jobs they wanted; now that they're parents, they declare they no longer break the rules and would never allow or encourage their offspring to cheat.

In that brief moment, it feels like they actually aren't cheating. They're just lying.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 15, 2012 C7

History

Updated on Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 10:38 AM CST: adds images, adds fact box

12:23 PM: Corrects airtime to 9 p.m.

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