Ashley Tidwell, a 19-year-old transplant from Alabama majoring in elementary education at the University of New Orleans (UNO), was slamming diet root beer as I asked her about cheating and technology on today's modern campus. It was only 9:30 a.m., but the table in the University Center Cafeteria was covered with chocolate chip cookies. The Sigma Kappas told me the cookies were for "Giving Week" and would be distributed to fellow greeks, but they were making a decent breakfast out of them on their own.
"Everyone cheats," Tidwell says with a giggle. "I cheat; I'll admit it. I don't cheat on whole exams, but if I have a problem on something and the person next to me has it, I might peek."
Busted. Now, what about the infamous file cabinets full of tests that sororities allegedly maintain in their attics? Tidwell glares at me and pulls herself up over the table to whisper something to Heather Sosa, 20, a physiology major. Sosa eventually shook her head.
"We have, like, study guides," Tidwell says, raising two fingers on each hand to make the universal quote-quote sign. Sosa stops chewing on her pen long enough to clarify: "Um, like note files. It's just a lot of girls helping each other out."
A somewhat honest discussion with today's youth, but not exactly what I was looking for. I'd been hearing tales of technologically advanced cheaters, and I was hoping to find some students to back the stories up. Then without prompting, Tidwell adds: "I've also known people who have taken pictures of tests with cell phones and downloaded them and blew them up."
School is now in session.
A NATIONAL SURVEY PUBLISHED last year by Education Week found that 54 percent of students in the United States admitted to plagiarizing from the Internet. Recently in Korea, law enforcement officials uncovered evidence that about 100 students used text messaging to cheat on the national college entrance exams. In a more stealth-like attack around the same time, 46 students in Thailand were banned from the military for life after they were caught trying to cheat on entrance exams with cell phones hidden in their shoes. The list goes on -- in 2003 a half-dozen students at the University of Maryland admitted to cheating on an accounting exam with text messaging.
The tools of the trade are as common to many students as pen and paper -- cell phones, iPods, BlackBerrys and a cadre of other portable electronics. Not surprisingly, the Internet also plays into the equation, providing students with a virtual Wild West for plagiarism and other academic misdeeds.
Locally, most professors contend that high-tech cheating is a relatively minor problem, but many students say the practice is widespread. Either way, most teachers now include a warning on their initial syllabi and remind students almost daily to keep cell phones and BlackBerrys out of sight. And in an ethical behavior survey conducted last month at Loyola University as part of the 2005 Bateman Case Study Competition, only 11 students out of the 247 polled thought their campus had "[no cheating problem] at all."
Almost all of the local students interviewed for this story were aware of some form of cheating, high-tech or otherwise. Some detailed what they have observed, some gave first-hand accounts, and some offered a wink and a nudge after their detailed illustrations, denying participation in the schemes themselves.
Timothy Brezina, an associate professor of sociology at Tulane University, has a special interest in academic dishonesty -- he is a faculty mentor to students who have been accused of violating Tulane's honor code. He often administers a "cheating exercise" to his classes and has found a wide majority of students are willing to confess they have cheated at some point during their academic careers. But the students admit to cheating unwillingly -- and only do so under a veil of secrecy.
"The classic excuse offered by students is that their cheating behavior was due to unusual circumstances, and that it is not a reflection of their true character," Brezina says. Extreme stress is one such circumstance, he says. "They therefore believe they should not be treated like a real cheater."
Brezina says he can't say exactly how much new technologies are changing the ways students cheat. All forms of cheating are already both ubiquitous and largely untraceable, he says. "Opportunity makes the thief, and technology undoubtedly increases the possible opportunities to cheat or to overcome obstacles to cheating."
MORE SCHOOLING IN THE WAYS of cheating came courtesy a bright-eyed kid in The Cove, a recreational facility on the UNO campus. I was trying to coax a confession out of a weary freshman when a voice shot forward out of the background: "Hey! You want to know a really easy way to cheat?"
Under a head of black spikes sat John Richoux, a natural born storyteller all of age 19. He held forth with an excited air. While he spoke, his hands tugged occasionally at his camouflage jacket and pointed at me.
"It's easy to cheat using an iPod," Richoux says. "You just record a file of your own voice with your notes or whatever and just play it on your iPod in class. Text messaging is pretty easy, too, but you got to have someone else in the class. The new [Nintendo DS] has a wireless chat feature so you can use that, too."
Crib sheets are still good in a pinch, but technology has changed the entire ballgame, he says. "It's just easier. Most teachers are used to looking out for certain things, like people glancing around. They just aren't used to looking for this kind of stuff. It's getting easier."
The grift might be transforming, he went on, but the basic rules remain unchanged. "It's cheating," Richoux says. "You don't want to do it in the open." He recommends keeping personal digital assistants (or PDAs) in the most obvious and easiest spot: the lap.
After bringing me into this covert world, Richoux leans forward to laughingly add an endnote: "But I'm pre-med, you know. I can't afford to cheat."
Angela Fahmi is a Loyola freshman studying international business. She says she's seen it all. During an early morning on-campus interview on the lower level of Loyola's Danna Center, Fahmi, a Baton Rouge native, shared her disgust. She's even watched as a teacher did nothing about two students whispering during a test. "They just laughed it off," she says.
This occurrence isn't too uncommon. According to a study by the Center for Academic Integrity, an affiliate of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, "[some] faculty are reluctant to take action against suspected cheaters [and] students suggest that cheating is higher in courses where it is well known that faculty members are likely to ignore cheating."
Associate professor Brazina adds his own spin to the data: "It's not too difficult to understand this reluctance in my view. Few instructors have a strong interest in policing their classrooms or their students."
Fahmi says she's caught wind of an underground Web site that posts portions of tests captured with camera phones, but passwords to the site supposedly are pricey. Meanwhile, a hard copy of a test can run a student about $20, Fahmi says. She's also a constant witness to cheating with graphing calculators, which are capable of storing formulas, and text messaging. "I've see it," Fahmi says. "I've seen people store stuff on their phone and scroll around to get the stuff during the test."
A Loyola focus group connected with the Bateman competition identified cell phones as viable tools for cheating. Andrea Ganier, a junior from New Orleans who helped conduct the meetings, says only one student brought up the topic of texting, but many others mentioned camera phones. Some argued that standard picture resolutions are too shoddy to get the job done efficiently.
Janice Lyn, the associate dean of student affairs at UNO, says she hasn't seen an overwhelming amount of cases involving handheld devices at her university. She should know -- if the teacher pursues a cheater, the case would be routed through her office.
"Maybe they just haven't been caught," Lyn says.
But professors are aware of the threat -- and are letting their students know. "I am seeing a lot of that," Lyn explains. "The faculty members are telling students to turn off their phones and keep them out of the way."
Deidre Labat, senior vice-president of academic affairs at Xavier University, says there haven't been any documented cases of cheating involving cell phones on her campus, but she knows it could be going on. Her tech staff has been exploring ways to jam signals in larger classes. While nothing has come of that effort, Labat says the phones remain a constant threat. "Phones are so small nowadays, that even if you tell students they can't have them, you have to almost search them with a metal detector to find them," she says.
Handhelds might not be the biggest high-tech worries, though. "Bob" -- who agreed to talk anonymously -- says that two years ago, he took part in an elaborate Tulane physics class cheating scam. As Bob recalls, five students collaborated in pulling off the intellectual heist.
"We had all done pretty shitty on the first three exams," he says. "We all got 70s to 78s. It was not good. Then we got to the final and there was no proctor at all for some reason."
Bob says he and his cohorts were able to find a few problems answered verbatim in their textbooks, but the others were seemingly unattainable. One of the gang remembered a physics-related Web site their professor used for test problems. The cell phones came out. To their dismay, however, no one they called could find their way to a computer.
There was only one remaining option. "We're sitting there like douche bags not knowing what to do and we realize the questions and answers are on that Web site. One of us walked out of the class and into a computer lab, which was upstairs, and got the answers. Man, we all passed that final with flying colors."
Bob says he took his grade with pride and never heard anything about it again. No one found out and no one was disciplined. The university's honor code was violated. Before now, no ever talked about the operation. "We have an honor code, too," Bob says.
UNIVERSITY OFFICIALS AGREE on the most popular way to cheat via Internet: "cut and paste," or electronic plagiarism.
The Loyola Bateman team keyed in on the topic as part of a "Check Out My Ethics" campaign. Senior Jacqueline Bodet, the director of the Bateman team, says that the reasons for plagiarizing -- laziness and procrastination -- remain the same. The Internet has just made it much easier. "It's so simple just to highlight someone else's work and stick it in your own word processor and claim it as your own," Bodet says.
Lyn, UNO's associate dean of student affairs, agrees. Some students plagiarize because they don't understand writing guidelines, she says. But there's also a fair share of blatant offenders out there. Students today have an endless pool of resources when it comes to lifting information off of the 'Net -- they can Google millions of trivial sites and visit Web pages dedicated to deviance.
For example, Cheathouse.com claims to have a database of more than 49,000 essays on a variety of topics; a mere $3.95 will buy a full week's worth of access. But the folks who run the site do offer a warning: "And don't be an idiot! If you hand in one of these essays exactly as it is, you are running a risk. If caught, you could be kicked out of your school. It happens. Teachers have been known to check essay sites, and students have been caught. Instead of copying an essay, just use it -- get inspired, use the bibliography and cite the essay."
Lyn says these site administrators are right -- professors are arming themselves electronically. "I've seen this grow in frequency over the past five years," she says. "Plagiarized material is lifted right off the Internet. But what faculty members can do is enter it back into the Internet and find out where it came from. They are technologically on the ball."
Among the more popular sites being used by educators is Turnitin.com. The site boasts, "We prevent and detect plagiarism by comparing submitted papers to billions of pages of content located on the Internet and our proprietary databases. The results of our comparisons are compiled, one for each paper submitted, in custom Originality Reports.' These reports are sent to participating educators, who access the results by logging into their Turnitin account(s)."
But there's some evidence that students aren't dissuaded. In the Loyola Bateman study, only 71 students out of 247 stated that "computer programs that scan for plagiarism" would serve as a sufficient deterrent to keep them from cheating.
Other students know they don't even need a computer to make their way through college with only a half-hearted try.
AT LOYOLA'S MONROE LIBRARY, the imposing statue of St. Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus, is wearing a maroon T-shirt stretched over its chest and torso. "Hector" -- not his real name -- is standing in its shadow. In a few months, Hector will graduate -- after buying his way through scores of classes.
While chain-smoking cigarettes, Hector says it all began in his freshman year, when someone offered him a copy of a test. The price was right, he was hooked and there was no looking back. Pretty soon he had someone writing papers for him as well. "Americans are very cheap," he says with a laugh. Over the past four years, Hector says he has paid $20 to $50 for copies of tests and about $10 per page for original essays.
Hector quickly made a rule to only cheat on electives and religious courses -- he says contraband for some classes have been easier to obtain than others. One of his consistent hook-ups doesn't even attend Loyola, he says, and is in fact an "older dude that's really strange." Former international students have also provided assistance. "It's not like there's an underground market for these things," Hector says. "I think it's more for international students because we're not used to writing long papers on stupid things."
High-tech may be the latest thing in cheating, but there are countless examples of old-school techniques that sound efficient enough. The Loyola Bateman team heard stories about female students using their shirts and guys using their shorts as hiding places for crib sheets. Professors and administrators relayed tales of blue books being swapped, formulas being carved into pens, and groups of students using Morse code for multiple-choice tests. Many students have also tried penning notes on a rubber band -- once it stretches out, it's easier to read.
Even with all these techniques floating around, only 19 out of the 33 faculty members surveyed by the Loyola Bateman team are "somewhat" aware of cheating and academic dishonesty in their classrooms. Still, offenders are busted on a regular basis.
But first, students still have to get caught. "The chances of any given violation actually being detected are probably small, even if some instructors do remain vigilant," Brezina says. "Self-report surveys of academic cheating among college student populations typically show the problem to be extensive at both public and private universities, yet honor boards typically handle just a small number of cases in any given semester. Consequently, official policies, no matter how strict, can hardly have a meaningful deterrent effect if the chances of getting caught are so small to begin with."
So what does keep people from cheating?
Amber Phillips, 20, a UNO nursing student from Gretna, has her own reasons: "I'm scared I would get caught. I'm terrified of getting kicked out. My mom would kill me."
Fahmi, the Loyola student "disgusted" by cheaters, thinks about the long-term effects. "I would just be hurting myself," she says. "Ethically, if you screw up, I believe it will catch up with you somewhere down the line. And it causes a pattern. You'll keep doing it and eventually lose your job or something over it."
Then there are the others. After Bob finished spinning his physics-class yarn, I asked him if his degree still holds the same value as those of his peers. Bob has no worries -- he and his friends had pulled it off without a hitch and there would be no consequences. He quickly transitions to other concerns. "I'm going to go smoke a couple of bowls and see where that leads me," he says walking away, a cheating philosopher happy to have given himself the leg up.