Anti-plagiarism expands: Catching cheaters through 'reading' time

Is analyzing a student's reading and editing time nothing more than Big Brother or necessary in a digital world?

A new trend in anti-plagiarism techniques is fast approaching -- monitoring the time it takes for a student to read a text.

It's far too easy for students to cheat these days. Old-hat techniques involved concealing notes in sleeves for exams, writing on the inside of a water-bottle label and hiding formulas under your watch strap; now, teachers have to contend with smartphones, hidden earpieces and cameras.

Not only this, but as many Western curriculums blend exams and coursework, a quick hunt on Google sends students into the world of copy and paste, Wikipedia, essay repositories and even paying mercenary essay writers to pen papers for them.

It's enough to make a teacher despair. However, once schools began catching on to the practice, a plethora of anti-plagiarism firms sprung to the education systems' defense; churning out software and practices that schools could follow to catch cheating students.

student plagiarism cheating new software reading engagement

As a former teacher, I remember how easy it was to know when a student's submitted work was not their own. If you know a student, the range of language, technical terms and subject matter can all give them away when their work has come from somewhere else. But proving it is the tough part.

Software is available, such as Turnitin, which allows you to input key phrases and link up to replica essays online. A simpler method is simply to take a sentence from the paper, quote it, and throw it into Google -- lo and behold, the exact same paper.

However, sometimes students are wily enough to change every word they possibly can to avoid detection. For some of the more tech-educators among us, if you ask for essays to be sent via a Microsoft Word document, as The Atlantic notes, a little-known feature called "total editing time" comes in handy. If a student has only 'edited' a piece for a few minutes, the suspicious teacher's thoughts may be confirmed.

It's not just about the writing. Reading is now a concern, as summaries, plot notes and the wonderful world of Wikipedia have come into fruition. CourseSmart, a firm which sells digital versions of textbooks to academic institutions, recently announced a new measuring tool to analyze student engagement and further detect plagiarism and cheating to further this end; in other words, to check up on how long your students are actually reading.

It's not possible to measure how long a student reads a traditional paper textbook -- often to be found as a doorstop or sold back the moment a course has finished -- but as we shift to the digital, linking up electronic books to a central database could be used to track how much time a student spends reading, the amount of pages viewed, and whether any notes are made. (electronically, of course).

Once all of this is calculated, each student is given an "engagement score", which teachers and professors can view at their leisure.

Why? So students with low levels can be reached out to -- and potentially chastised -- and CourseSmart Analytics could also be a measure to check if students are engaging when writing papers. If a book hasn't even been opened but a paper has been submitted, this could set alarm bells going.

Sean Devine, chief executive of CourseSmart, told The Chronicle that "There is a screaming demand in the marketplace for knowledge around what impact course materials have on learning," however, the firm does understand "the Big Brother aspects of it."

After all, knowing your textbook is keeping an eye on your study habits is somewhat creepy. CourseSmart Analytics is expected to be widely available in 2013, and several universities are planning to run pilots of the program.