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Twitter had an “I’m old enough to remember…” meme this week that made me laugh. “I’m old enough to remember when 2 was a number, not an abbreviation.” “I’m old enough to remember when we waited until 11 p.m. to make long distance calls.” “I’m old enough to remember when we mailed checks to pay bills.” 

And I’m old enough to remember when plagiarism took actual effort.

Before web browsing combined with copy and paste to make plagiarism seamless, a student who wanted to copy a paper from another source had to actually put some work into it. In my earliest teaching days, he had to find a paper source, select a relevant-seeming passage, and actually retype the entire thing. (In practice, many of them chose the “have my girlfriend write it for me” approach, which is an even older method.) It was just as dishonest, but at least it took some legwork. Judging by the quality of much of what I read, most of them just wrote it themselves. 

Exams were a different issue. I recall hearing in my t.a. days to watch out for the old “write the answers on the inside of the water bottle label” trick. I admit admiring the ingenuity of whomever first came up with it. We’d hear about baseball cap bills, or variations on morse code, or suspiciously timed trips to the bathroom. I prided myself on deploying clever little anti-cheating methods publicly, both to deter the opportunists and to reassure the good students that they weren’t wasting their efforts. (My favorite, for in-class blue book essays (!), was to have the students draw a triangle or square somewhere on the first page, and not to write anything in it.  It defeated pre-written answers.) 

Then the web took off, and the game changed. Suddenly, appropriating content became easy and quick. Google, select, copy, paste. Done and done. And with online courses, the opportunities for cheating on exams mushroomed.  You no longer need to be a criminal mastermind to pull it off.  Now that many students have multiple screens, even monitoring what’s on the screen with the test isn’t enough. If you’re monitoring my laptop, you don’t know what I’m doing on my tablet or phone. Multiple choice is easy with Google at the ready.

I’ve heard of more intrusive forms of surveillance, like biometrics or webcams, but I’ve got just enough Foucault in me to recoil at the prospect of panopticism as the answer. Part of the appeal of online courses is the ability to do them in your bathrobe, looking like hell.  Recording video of that seems either cruel or creepy. Yes, one could argue that in the era of the NSA, those horses are well out of the barn, but I still sense a difference.

In a way, the advent of online exams has highlighted the relative lightness with which we’ve long taken in-class identity. In my teaching days, I don’t recall ever asking for or looking at a student’s ID.  If the same student showed up week after week, answering to “Brian,” then I assumed he was Brian. He could have been Brian’s brother, Dave. I wouldn’t have known. 

Some have argued that the way to combat online plagiarism and related offenses is to make assignments so idiosyncratic that they can’t possibly be plagiarized.  I guess that’s possible, sometimes, but it doesn’t work as well in, say, American Government or College Algebra as it might in English Comp.  It also makes assessment much harder, since coming up with a flurry of idiosyncratic assignments semester after semester that align with learning outcomes that don’t change for years is a tall order.  The workload implications alone are severe.

Technology helps in certain ways.  We use turnitin, which can be both a teaching tool and a way to catch certain kinds of cheating.  Savvy faculty know to Google particularly florid or improbable sentences. And of course, abrupt shifts in voice or references to knowledge that students couldn’t possibly have are tip-offs. (I once had a below-average student in a 101 class drop an arch reference to Larry Summers in a paper. Um, no.) 

But even with these safeguards, it’s hard to escape the sense that cheating is becoming easier, and preventing it is becoming harder. 

Wise and worldly readers, short of going full-on panopticon on them, have you found reasonably elegant ways to combat online plagiarism or cheating?

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