Where Are We on the Whole Cheating Thing?

In general, we’re against it.

Got it.

Specifically, we’re against it, too.

I see. Well, here’s the rub . . . .

Something is going on with the definition of cheating. There are powerful forces at work that are chipping away at what cheating means or at least what it connotes. Those forces are the usual suspects: Technology and the Information Age.

Each work sector in our country is dealing with this cheating paradigm shift in its own way. Some embrace it (the gaming industry), others fight it (the record industry), and a few have not yet recognized it (education).

Where We Were

Education used to be, and in some places still is, measured by the transfer of knowledge.

I possess this knowledge. I will teach you this knowledge. Now you have this knowledge.

That’s education. Or that’s what education used to be. When knowledge and data were expensive and difficult to attain because they were behind the closed doors of costly higher education or locked away in difficult to access libraries, education turned students into self-contained knowledge repositories. Information was scarce, so memorize it. That made sense at the time.

Then technology ran wild with the internet and the Information Age was born. At first there was a little information on the internet. Like Day 1 of the internet. Then there was a TON of information on the internet. Now 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are added to the internet everyday. 90% of all the world’s data since the beginning of time has been added in the last two years.

Data is literally streaming through our bodies via WiFi and cell towers. Needless to say, today’s generation of students, Generation Z, has a different relationship with information than all of the preceding generations had. Their troubles begin when they have to interact with those older generations, especially in an academic setting where students are still expected to be knowledge repositories. That school culture is disconnected from the digital zeitgeist that streams through the rest of the modern world.

Mixed Messages

GenZs constantly receive mixed messages about content ownership and cheating. A world of content remixes and mashups live on YouTube, which blur what content ownership means for the young novice creator who has free and easy to access digital tools that make the production of content easy. The tools are so slick in creating professional looking videos and images that they seem to beg GenZs to use them. Check out this YouTube mashup where two music videos have been expertly “mashed” together by a mashup artist:

The “PSY vs. Ghostbusters” mashup was created by “faroff” who did not create the original contact, but with some snazzy editing skills and keen musical understanding, he created a new artful experience. This mashup has generated over 1.4 million views. By cable TV standards, that’s chart topping. Mashup artists can’t monetize their creations, but they can (and do) open PayPal accounts to let fans donate and pay homage to their mashup skills. Occasionally original content owners will claim copyright violations and YouTube will remove the videos. Other artists will actually sponsor mashup contests, rewarding their fans with cash and prizes (See David Bowie).

Collaborative sites like Wikipedia place little emphasis on ownership or authorship. Much web content has no attribution to the author at all so it appears to be “free to use” or “common knowledge.” That’s very confusing to the young GenZ who’s writing his or her first research paper.

Game cheats are non-standard methods for creating an advantage beyond normal gameplay. When gamers find a particular portion of a game to be “stupid hard,” they are eager to crack the code or find a work around that gives them an advantage the way Captain Kirk did in his famous  Kobayashi Maru test, which has led to the gaming philosophy that “no-win scenarios are for losers.” Gamers wear the cheat badge with honor. Cheats that are smarter or more entertaining than what the game designers created are regarded with awe and often rewarded financially.

Similarly, “life hacks” use things or do things in a non-standard way, and they are universally accepted.

Life Hack

Life hacks are ingenious in their simplicity, and game cheats are their close cousins. You can see how the cheating crumb trail leads right back to ideas that society accepts.

I often wonder if the Greek poet Homer was lionized or castigated in his own era.  Was he an innovator or the biggest cheat of all time?  Why recite that rather long poem when I can write it down?

That scene must have played out like this:

Mentor: You must memorize this 11,000 line poem so you can repeat it verbatim to others.

Homer: Why must I memorize it? What can’t I just write it–

Mentor: WHO’S THE MENTOR HERE? Me or you?

Mindy Kaling (from TV’s The Office) perfectly frames the GenZ mindset:

The Big Penalty

When students cheat, we tend to fail them in a hurry. It’s usually clear cut for us as teachers. “Keep your eyes on your own paper.”



Plagiarism is problematic for us, though. In research papers, we intentionally send out students to look at the work of others. If we send work home with students and say to them “Don’t look at the internet,” we would probably laugh a little inside. The students would probably LOL. In spite of Mindy Kaling’s video, I believe GenZs know right from wrong. If GenZs have another student do their work for them, they know that’s cheating. They know that selling pirated music is illegal. They know that if they copy an entire article, put their name on it, and turn it in, that it’s cheating. It’s the less obvious cheating crimes that they are confused about.

In classroom situations, we should take advantage of teachable moments when they are available. Show students explicitly what they did wrong, keeping in mind that the world they are growing up in is not the world we grew up in. I don’t believe immediate failure for plagiarism with other heaped-on punishments is a way for students to learn from the situation. It really just increases student resentment for the whole “school ordeal.”

While technology makes it easy to cheat, it also makes it easy to catch the cheater. “Cheating” is the wrong word here. If students had to read three articles about a topic that they are completely unfamiliar with, and then they had to write original content about that topic, you could understand that they might write a string of words that looks pretty similar to the original content of others.

We can use programs like Turnitin to catch student plagiarism.  Apps like that can also be a learning tool for the young writer. Have students put their own essays through Turnitin or Best Grammar and Plagiarism Checker to see what they may have copied or for ideas that are not original. Let them correct it before they turn it in for a grade.

Make it clear that quoting others with attribution is completely acceptable, especially if they don’t have many original thoughts on some obscure assigned research topic. Let them assemble the thoughts and quotations of others in a way that still tells the story while giving attribution to the original content creators.

In high school, I was assigned a research topic on “How to Make Barbed Wire.” The teacher had diabolically placed two books (possibly the only two in the world) in the school library that dealt with the production and history of barbed wire. Sixty kids had to battle over those two resources, but worse, we had to say something original about making barbed wire. This assignment played out like an episode of Bait Car. The teacher laid out the trap and just waited patiently for us to fall into her plagiarism trap. This was pre-internet days, so we didn’t have access to all the world’s information about barbed wire. In addition, she had memorized every word of both books. She had a tiny asterisk on the project’s written instructions that she didn’t mention once in her oral instructions:

*If you use three words in a row from an outside source and do not quote it with proper attribution, the penalty will be a ZEREO (0) for the assignment.

Ultimately, the entire project turned out to be a lesson on attribution and plagiarism. It didn’t count as a research paper grade. It was our trial run through. Our teacher couldn’t believe that none of us got the “barbed wire” metaphor and threatened to fail us just for that.

If students are K12, they are a novice at the research-writing-attribution-content-creation process. Even most college graduates are still considered novices (or worse) when they arrive to the workplace. A K12 novice writer who makes a novice mistake should face a novice consequence that teaches and enlightens vs. punishes and fails. Give them the opportunity to redo the assignment until they get it right (mastery).

New Type of Assignments

Continuing to treat kids as content repositories doesn’t begin to let them reach their modern-world potential. Education didn’t evolve into this, it devolved into it. We stopped trying to turn kids into writers. We were content in making them readers. We would rather that they learn the histories and biographies of the great writers instead of trying to become writers themselves. Reading creates a repository of knowledge that’s easy to test. Writing is much harder to grade. Other content production like video creation or Slideshare or Prezi is even harder to grade for the Baby Boomer teacher. Recognizing this problem, though, doesn’t prevent us from complaining that kids can’t write. There’s really no pleasing us.

The best way to teach students about content ownership, authorship, plagiarism, and cheating is to have them produce their own content in various media formats that they have to license, using the Creative Commons licenses. Have them create content suitable for both ends of the licensing spectrum from least restrictive to most restrictive.

I like to think that Homer was both a forward leaning innovator and guardian of his culture’s most sacred artifacts, histories, and legends. Plato wrote that “Homer was the educator of all Greece.” We can guide our students through the pitfalls of content creation and cheating and release them into the world where they, too, can impact a nation.

Adam Renfro

Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011.

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