Is It Cheating If It's That Easy?

April 13, 2015

My 14-year-old daughter was groaning in frustration one evening as she sat at the family computer doing her U.S history homework. When I asked her what was wrong, she said she was having trouble searching on Google for the definition of a government program.

Meanwhile, her textbook lay at her elbow, untouched.

Why don’t you look it up in your book, I suggested, flipping to the chapter she was supposed to have read and quickly finding the item in the text. She just rolled her eyes.

That’s when it hit me. For kids growing up in the age of Google, it makes more sense—and it’s much faster—to type a question into a search bar than to wade through pages of printed words. Never mind that finding the information on Google circumvents the learning process; my daughter may find what she’s looking for, but that Wikipedia entry most likely would lack the context that was provided in the textbook.

And then there is this: Was she cheating by looking for answers on Google?

It’s a question that bears asking in a time when so much information is available online to anyone at any time, upending the way older generations learned to study and raising issues about the ethics of online research.

When access to the Internet became widely available years ago, it changed our lives. Using the Internet made my job as a journalist infinitely easier. No longer did I have to wait to hear back from a source or drive to the local police station to get the information I needed for a story. Much of it was now available with just a few clicks of a computer mouse.

And generations of research has shown that a major factor in unethical behavior is simply how easy or hard it is.

Today’s generation is growing up knowing only that easy access—and quite susceptible to the temptation it provides.

The Temptation to Cheat

Consider this from a 2012 New York Times story by Richard Perez-Pena: “Internet access has made cheating easier, enabling students to connect instantly with answers, friends to consult and works to plagiarize. And generations of research has shown that a major factor in unethical behavior is simply how easy or hard it is.”

The proliferation of online study guides such as Cliff Notes and SparkNotes only increases the temptation to not actually do the work. Whether it’s cheating to look up the character analysis for Pride and Prejudice instead of doing your own after reading the book has become such an issue that Cliff Notes actually addresses the topic on its website.

“Passing up the opportunity to read the book you've been assigned is a sure-fire way to fall short in class. Falling back on CliffsNotes as your only resource for test or paper preparation is an invitation for embarrassment (at the least) or serious repercussions (along with the embarrassment),” the website says before advising students “to refer to the CliffsNotes version as you read through your book, play, or poem.”

SparkNotes is a popular resource among students in the communication arts magnet program at my daughters’ suburban Maryland high school. Providing in-depth information—including analysis of themes, motifs and even symbols—the site is a useful go-to when students are facing a 60-page reading assignment on top of other homework.

Though it upsets me to see my kids relying on SparkNotes, I do understand using the website can be helpful, especially when it comes to deciphering the language of William Shakespeare. The “No Fear Shakespeare” section provides side-by-side translation of the literature “into modern English—the kind of English people actually speak today,” according to the website. Now that’s something to which I wish I had access in 10th-grade English class.

Use Online Resources Responsibly

The upshot is that there is no way to stuff the genie back into the bottle when it comes to students relying on the Internet for help with schoolwork. So the big question is how do we teach our kids to use technology responsibly and to make sure they understand it’s wrong to claim others’ work as their own?

It’s important that teachers make sure students know what constitutes cheating when it comes to taking information from the Internet. High schools and teachers should make clear what constitutes plagiarism, how to avoid it and what the consequences will be if students are caught, Stacey Conradson & Pedro Hernández-Ramos of Santa Clara University write in “Computers, The Internet, and Cheating Among Secondary School Students: Some Implications for Educators,” published in the online journal Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation.

“Many schools encourage teachers to give lessons on the differences between copying and paraphrasing, and how to provide proper attribution,” the researchers wrote.

That’s the case in our local schools, where my daughters have been taught how to properly cite publications that they reference in research papers and essays. Grading rubrics always include major point reductions if works aren’t cited properly.

Still, I know I need to keep a vigilant eye on their use of the Internet and to continually reinforce the importance of doing their own work. Avoiding cheating is critical, but it’s the learning that counts in the long run.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr.

Written by

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot is the mother of two technology-loving teens and a senior editor at Bethesda Magazine in Bethesda, Md. She has written for The Washington Post, Education Week and other publications.