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.