There's a war going on, and I knew nothing about it until recently. I'm not talking about the war in Iraq or the war on terror. I read newspapers and watch television news. I knew about those. I'm talking about a war in our schools, a war that is being fought with modern technology--weapons of mass deception, if you will.
I learned about this war in a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article that the editor of this publication sent to me. The September 13th article, titled "Putting Tech to the Test," discussed students' use of technology to cheat on tests and teachers' countermeasures. It seems that students employ PDAs, cell phones, and camera phones to share test answers with their classmates. These people are putting a seemingly innocuous technology to an evil use. Who would have ever thought such a thing could happen in this, the best of all possible worlds?
In my day... In my day, we trudged three and a half miles in blinding blizzards and frigid temperatures to get to school. Once there, even minor misbehavior on our parts would lead to corporal punishment. There usually was no snow in the summer, but then we worked from dawn to dusk in farm fields. Wait. When did I turn into one of my great-grandfathers? They all died before I was born. I grew up in Toronto and never had to walk more than a few blocks to school. With the exception of my first-grade teacher, most of my teachers were actually quite nice and sympathetic. And I don't remember even seeing a farm until I was well into my teens. The closest I got were some raspberry bushes that we planted in our backyard.
Where was I going with this?
Oh yeah, cheating. I never cheated when I was in school (I was an unmitigated wimp), but others did. It was a lot more difficult back then. If my cohorts wanted to bring answers into the exam room, they had to guess what the test questions would be, meticulously write crib sheets on their arms, wear long-sleeve shirts, and then roll up their sleeves when the teacher wasn't looking. To this day, I am not really sure whether the reason that I didn't cheat was a strong sense of ethics or because I've always had short arms that don't offer enough writing space to make it worthwhile.
Of course, there were other methods of cheating back then. You could try to sneak a peek at someone else's exam paper, but that required that you have good eyesight and sit next to someone smarter than you. Whispering was also a possibility, but that had two similar requirements: good hearing and someone smarter within whispering range. I never had a problem finding someone smarter than me, but I'm not sure that I could have met the physical prerequisites.
Now, cheating has gone high-tech. According to the WSJ article, these are some of the methods students use:
- They surreptitiously use text messaging to ask for and send answers.
- They sneak out their camera phones, snap pictures of the exam, and send the pictures to an outside accomplice who looks up the answers, writes them down, photographs the results, and transmits the picture back.
- They use portable, wireless Web browsers such as a suitably equipped PDA or cell phone to share answers in Internet chat rooms.
These people absolutely deserve to fail, but they should at least get some points for ingenuity. In addition, not getting caught requires a level of dexterity that is beyond the average person. Think about this. You have to view the screen and tap on the necessary keys while keeping the device out of the exam monitor's sight. I know that I wouldn't have the necessary skills even if I did have a sufficient lack of scruples.
It takes two to fight a war. Never wanting to miss an opportunity to sell stuff, suppliers are pushing electronic countermeasures to help teachers stop the miscreants. There are now gadgets that can block cell phone signals or reroute calls to voice mail, without the phone user's permission. There's just one teensy problem with these solutions--they are illegal in Europe and the United States. Those school administrators educated enough to know the definition of the word "hypocrite" would have to rewrite their civics curriculum if they broke the law by using these devices.
One countermeasure that is legal is a detector that sounds an alarm when a cell phone is in use within range of the detector. I suspect that it would be easy to overcome that. All a cheater has to do is get a sympathizer or two to stand somewhere nearby and make a bunch of cell phone calls at the start of the exam. I'll bet exam monitors would heave the detectors out the window--probably without stopping to open it--after no more than 10 minutes of hearing continual false alarms ringing in their ears.
Besides, what would exam monitors do when a legitimate alarm sounds? These devices can only determine that a cell phone is in use within their range. They can't pinpoint the location of the offending phone. Are teachers going to stop the exam, do a full and detailed body frisk of every student to search for and confiscate cell phones? Do any civil rights lawyers operate as public companies? I'd sure like to buy some of their stock if that happens.
The exam cheating described in the WSJ article obviously isn't the only problem. University students also download term papers and submit them as their own, without changing anything other than the byline. How did such incredibly stupid people manage to get into university? They must have cheated. Have they never heard of search engines? There are even specialized services that allow professors to hunt for plagiarized papers. Don't these mental giant plagiarists realize that professors might get a little suspicious when students turn in brilliant papers after a whole term of demonstrating their doltishness? Worse, I expect that not all of the plagiarized papers are particularly good. At least that should reduce the suspicions of professors, but imagine getting caught plagiarizing an "F" grade paper. Talk about a loser!
This has got to stop. What moral lessons are students learning from their electronic cheating? For that matter, what vocational skills is it teaching them? Enron is bankrupt, so I guess all that's left to them is a career in politics.