How Teachers Will Use E-Readers to Catch Cheaters

Tricks for catching plagiarizers online are old hat. But now teachers have ways to monitor the time it takes a student to read a text.

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These are tough times for plagiarists and would-be academic cheaters. That may seem a counter-intuitive statement, given how much material is online, just waiting to be copied-and-pasted, and how many services are ready to write your papers for you for a nominal (or not so nominal) consideration. But just as authoritarian governments can use Twitter to spy on their rebellious citizens, so too professors can turn online tools against their students. And now digital reading has become the newest frontier of scholarly surveillance, the newest tool for those of us who like to stand at the center of the academic Panopticon.

Some background: When I started teaching, way back in the 1980s, plagiarism presented a real challenge. I could read an essay and know that the range of its vocabulary and the subtleties of its syntax were beyond the reach of the student who had turned it in -- but proving the point was usually another matter altogether. On rare occasions the book or essay whose words had been snatched was so well-known that I could identify it immediately; and occasionally a colleague could spot the source; but far more often I would realize, with a sinking feeling, that if I wasn't going to let the cheating pass I would have to spend a good deal of time in the library poring over academic journals.

When the age of the Internet arrived, opportunities for cheating increased but so too did tools for discovering it. Especially delightful were those papers whose "authors" had pasted in passages from online sources without changing the font, so that every stolen passage announced its presence -- ah, good times, good times. But the key development was the rise of Google: Once its spiders had crawled almost the whole Internet, it became trivial to search for the most uncommon phrases used in a suspicious paper and quickly pinpoint their sources.

But this just escalated the arms race, at least for students with enough pocket money to pay someone to write a paper from scratch for them. That can't be found on the internet because it doesn't exist until a mercenary scribe -- like this fellow -- writes it to order. Such practices are pretty hard for the suspicious teacher to discover -- though, at the risk of divulging a trade secret, I might note that such a teacher might ask for students to submit their papers as email attachments and in Microsoft Word, in which case he or she could consult one of the program's little-known features, something called total editing time. If the total editing time on a 3,000-word essay is three minutes, someone might have some explaining to do.

The Cold War between surveilling teachers and surveillance-avoiding students continues -- and now is shifting from writing to reading. Teachers who suspect that their students aren't writing their own papers are equally likely to suspect that they aren't doing the reading either, but instead consult Wikipedia or SparkNotes for plot summaries.

Enter something we might call "total reading time": CourseSmart, a company that publishes digital versions of textbooks, watches over the students as they read and can report back to the teacher, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

Say a student uses an introductory psychology e-textbook. The book will be integrated into the college's course-management system. It will track students' behavior: how much time they spend reading, how many pages they view, and how many notes and highlights they make. That data will get crunched into an engagement score for each student.

The people at CourseSmart say, "We do understand the Big Brother aspects of it," and insist that students who want to opt out may do so. Of course they may! And, also of course, teachers may ask, So why do you want to opt out? Got something to hide?

And so it goes. One would like to think that there's some way out of this endless cycle of cat-and-mouse, of which technology seems to alter only the details. Teachers, charged with evaluating the achievement of their students, have to create a system by which to do so; and where there is a system, there will be people determined to game it. No wonder so many teachers -- I am certainly one of them -- dream of schooling without grading, learning without a system of evaluation. But, sad to say, that will never be more than a dream. Teachers and students alike are caught up in our society's Panoptic model of education, and I'd like to say that we're all victims of it -- but I don't think my students would buy that one.