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Students, technology and cheating: A character test for the future workforce

As Minnesota kids return to school, let this year be a character test for the future workforce.

For all of us, telling the truth should be the first response to answering questions or addressing a dilemma. Honesty is one of the valued qualities that prospective employers seek from new hires. A demonstrated lack of it is a non-starter. Simply put, being honest is always the best choice.

For as long as exams and term papers have existed, harried or lazy students have been tempted to cheat. Through the use of today’s web technology, it’s never been easier. 

Are students defining cheating differently from in the past? In college decades ago, I allowed my higher-grade-point-average friend to take my own previously submitted work, retype and submit it.  From the same professor, I had received a B for the work and my friend later got an A. The two of us cheated. Never before had I done that and never again would I.

An ‘escalating war’
Today’s college professors and high-school teachers are engaged in what the New York Times recently called “an escalating war with students over cutting and pasting articles from the Internet, sharing answers on homework assignments and even texting answers during exams.”

Some believe that Internet-age students see so many examples of text, music and images copied online without credit that they may not fully understand the idea of plagiarism.

In surveys of 14,000 undergraduates over the last four years, an average of 61 percent admitted to cheating on assignments and exams, down from 65 percent earlier in the decade. The Rutgers researcher who conducted the surveys doubts there is less cheating; he surmises that students no longer regard certain acts as cheating at all.  For example, cutting and pasting a few sentences at a time from the Internet.

While some websites offer papers to students to download free of charge, other sites sell sophisticated software that can detect plagiarism instantly. Turnitin.com, the most popular anti-cheating technology, is now used nationwide by nearly 10,000 high schools and colleges. Students are required to submit written assignments to be compared with billions of archived web pages and millions of other student papers.

Public expects honest behavior in the classroom
Employers and the public rightfully expect classroom practices will reward honest behavior, discourage dishonest behavior and reflect reasonable preventative measures to protect the rights of students who are consistently honest.

One school in California has for more than a decade required students to make four commitments:

1. Do your own work unless otherwise directed by the teacher.

2. Complete each homework assignment with a focus on what is to be learned.

3. Do not take credit for work done by anyone else.

4. Refrain from and refuse to aid all acts of academic dishonesty.

For their part, students who are preparing for the workforce must understand that future employers know that, in the absence of academic honesty, student preparedness for a job is difficult if not impossible. Employers do expect honesty from their prospective workers and from employees every day. As they always have, personal values do count. 

A philosophy major at Cornell, Andrew Daines, had strong feelings about academic integrity and decided to do something about it. He helped to create a voluntary tutorial for the students on avoiding plagiarism, including the admonition that “other generations may not have had as many temptations to cheat or plagiarize as yours,” and urging students to view this as a “character test.”

I bet that Andrew will do well in his career and life.

Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm. Research for this essay included information from articles in the New York Times, Washington Post and websites serving the California schools. He can be reached at Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Rod Loper on 09/07/2010 - 08:56 am.

    An interesting post. How does this prepare a
    student for a Wall Street job rating securities
    in today’s market? I once had a student who got a job at a grain brokerage firm who wandered down
    to look at the barge he was trading. It was empty.
    When he asked his boss about it, he was fired.
    Students who buy this ethical culture would not
    last long trading California energy futures at Enron.

  2. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 09/07/2010 - 11:52 am.

    There’s cutting and pasting, and then there’s intelligently cutting and pasting. The latter requires that you understand that which you cut so that you can paste it coherently.

    Old masters learned to paint by copying older masters. Cutting and pasting is copying. That’s not a bad thing unless it’s done lazily with no thought. That shouldn’t be hard for teachers to spot.

    Punishing kids for cutting and pasting intelligently shows a profound disrespect for the learning process.

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