When students cheat, don't blame the Internet

Congratulations to the University of Virginia professor who wrote a computer program that enabled him to detect plagiarism in his students' essays.

Lou Bloomfield, who teaches a popular course called "How Things Work," told The Washington Post that he blamed the Internet for easy access to canned information, shared work, and the buying and trading of research papers. Of course, he's right that the Internet makes cheating easier; the Internet makes almost every part of daily life easier. In fact, without computers he wouldn't have been able to detect the plagiarism in the first place.

But Professor Bloomfield is making a big mistake by assuming that this moral lapse is chiefly the fault of our blossoming technology. Computers are going to continue to life easier and probably faster, whether we like it or not. But computers are not the biggest culprits in this blame-fest.

Cheating, I believe, often springs from the depersonalization of modern life. The more anonymous we feel, the easier it is for us to be generally meaner: to cut off another car in traffic, pretend we don't see the homeless guy asking for money, snap at telemarketers. Anonymity also allows us to imagine that no one's watching.

Technology, of course, can contribute to anonymity. The institution that enrolls 520 undergraduates in a single course, such as Mr. Bloomfield's, is asking for trouble. If you're just a number, there's so much less preventing you from cutting corners and buying a paper. You may never have even a single conversation with your professor. In fact, in this one class, there are so many students that they spill out into two satellite classrooms, where they watch the lecture on a screen. They hand in their final papers by e-mail. If you cheat in this kind of classroom, you may be disappointing yourself, but that's easy to put out of your mind when you're young, away from home, and under the enormous pressure of project deadlines and exams.

Without a computer program picking up similarities in writing patterns, no one would probably ever know that you've plagiarized.

In my freshman English class at George Washington University, I have come up with a simple solution for cheating on research papers. First of all, I get to know my students. I learn about their hometowns, their academic interests, their roommate troubles, and their malfunctioning alarm clocks.

Second, I require my students to hand in every part of their research paper project - research notes, drafts, outlines. When papers are due, I drag home backbreaking mountains of paper. Not only does that prevent students from buying a packaged paper off the Web, but it also allows me to check whether they're paraphrasing or summarizing properly, and that their sources are legitimate and reasoned and not some rant from "Tom's Cool Web Page."

Even with these rules, one year I discovered that a student had "borrowed" whole chunks of his paper from another scholarly source and inserted them directly into his own paper. It was all there in his folder. I guess he figured I wouldn't look carefully. I did find the plagiarism, though, and his paper received an automatic "F." When we talked, he was mortified and admitted cutting corners when he ran out of time. But what bothered him even more, he said, was that he felt he had ruined our student-teacher relationship. He said I wasn't even making eye contact with him in class, and he thought I had lost respect for him. The first point was true, but the latter wasn't. Everyone makes mistakes, I told him, and I doubted he would make this mistake again.

After the incident, he tried harder than ever to take part in class, write well, and think through what he had to say. He probably learned more from that unpleasant experience than many of my students learned that entire year.

A class with 520 students can't possibly offer that kind of lesson to anyone. It may be unfair of me to expect that all educational experiences should be up close and personal. But the truth is that we learn best from people, not from figureheads on a closed-circuit TV screen. I generally teach only 40 students a semester, in two classes. If they cheat, they have to face my disappointment in them, and in some ways that's much harder than writing a good paper in the first place.

When E.M. Forster said we should "only connect" with one another, he had the right idea. But he couldn't predict that a technology like the Internet could link us in such wonderful and silly ways. Still, we have to be on the lookout for times when our fast-access, instant-messaging way of connecting can make it easier for us to take a few moral shortcuts. We only live in a global village if we take the trouble to learn someone's name.

Debra Bruno has taught college English for nearly 20 years.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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