An arms race of sorts has broken out between developers who create websites to facilitate plagiarism and other developers who are identifying new ways to help spot it.
The web on one hand has become a boon for students seeking an unfair advantage, offering them countless ways to have someone else complete a school assignment on their behalf — usually for the right price. A simple search for “buy papers” or “free essays” yields thousands of results.
But web developers on the teachers’ side of this fight are also ramping up by deploying sophisticated search engines that can match excerpts from student-submitted work with passages from existing work on the web. Such services crawl billions of web pages to create useful databases.
The evolution of sites on both sides of this tug-of-war comes as schools face increased pressure to boost achievement and develop more precise ways of measuring the performance of students and teachers.
The percentage of students who have presented the work of others as their own is already high.
Results from a 2010 survey of 24,000 students at 70 high schools by Rutgers University Business School Professor Donald McCabe found that 58 percent of students admitted to plagiarism.
These statistics may be driven, in part, by persuasive messaging from the firms that are looking to attract student-customers.
“You will NOT get in trouble. Your school will NOT find out. You will NOT be caught. Do NOT BE AFRAID, we have NEVER had a student get in trouble for ordering an essay from us,” promises the website of eHomework, a Toronto-based firm catering to high school and college students in Canada and the United States.
Another part of eHomework’s sales pitch is rooted in its business model. The company relies on the writers it hires to start each job from scratch and assigns jobs based on a writer’s area of expertise. A request for a paper for a microeconomics class, for example, would be handled by someone with a business background, said eHomework’s marketing and operations chief. The company official agreed to answer emailed questions on the condition of anonymity.
This approach by eHomework — by selling papers that are not plagiarized — is specifically designed to thwart attempts by teachers and the tools they use to catch cheaters.
About 5,000 assignments have been churned out by eHomework since it was founded in 2007.
“Unless the student goes and tells the professor he bought it, there is no way the school will know it was bought,” the company official said. “We don’t stamp our work so that it can be traced back to us.”
Algorithms to help teachers?
Sites like Turnitin, however, are getting wise to the game.
This purveyor of “leading academic plagiarism checker technology” is developing a tool that would identify the unique characteristics of a student’s writing and alert educators when work shows signs of being penned by someone else.
Teachers would need to input a student’s prior work for the Turnitin tool to establish a pattern that can be compared against future assignments.
“These are the kinds of things we think about, and our research scientists are in the labs developing algorithms to track voice,” said Chris Harrick, vice president of marketing at Turnitin.
Why students cheat
Christina Ventimiglia, an English teacher at Wayne Hills High School in New Jersey, said Turnitin has the right idea pursuing this kind of technology.
Becoming familiar with the writing voices of students is, after all, one of the best ways teachers can spot plagiarism.
Ventimiglia said a paper written by someone outside of her class probably wouldn’t get past her considering the dozens of writing projects she assigns and how well she gets to know each student’s voice as a result.
What shouldn’t be lost in all the talk about tech helping to catch cheaters is the importance of encouraging students to write confidently — a fundamental rooted in strong teaching, she said.
“A lot of the kids who cheat aren’t confident about their writing. They feel they have a lack of authority on the topic or that they’re horrible writers,” Ventimiglia said. “I want kids to leave my class feeling good about their writing. If they build up confidence, they won’t feel compelled to do that.”Tags: Business,Education