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Searching for Answers: The Pitfalls of Online Resources

Most students cheat. In fact, the numbers are alarming.

According to the International Center for Academic Integrity, 95% of high school students admit to engaging in cheating at some level; 68% of undergraduate students and 43% of graduate students admit to cheating on written assignments or tests. These data are based on surveys conducted by Dr. Donald McCabe over the last 12 years.

Education in the technology age presents new learning opportunities as well as challenges in ensuring academic honesty. While the internet can be a valuable resource for further explanation if the textbook and lecture notes leave gaps, it may also serve as a readily available source for answers – a tool for cheating.

As discussed in our previous blog post - “Students Don’t Want to Cheat… And Teachers Can Help Them Stay Clean” – guest author and MIT Professor, David Pritchard described how “cheating” websites are well-known by students and heavily used. Students can find full solutions (not just answers) to questions in popular textbooks and online homework systems. We also highlighted that there is a growing sense of “technological detachment” in which students are less likely to associate the increased use of technology with cheating behavior, such as plagiarism and answer sharing. Moreover, the existence of smartphone apps for such services makes finding help – or simply the answer – even more accessible.

For example, a 2016 TIME article - 7 Apps That Can Do Your Homework Much Faster Than You – discusses apps like PhotoMath, a free app which allows students to take a picture of typed equations and get a step-by-step solution in return. Another app highlighted is Homework Helper, which allows users to upload a picture of the question to online forums and crowdsource help or answers. The Slader app offers similar crowdsourcing capabilities. Some argue that this type of assistance does not constitute cheating but is instead a way to get real-time help. Some believe resources like this equate to online study groups while others believe students are just looking for an easy way to complete an assignment.

A 2009 New York Times article - Psst! Need the Answer to No. 7? Click Here – addresses popular commercial websites like Cramster, Course Hero, Koofers and SparkNotes, which provide fee-based services. For example, Course Hero permits a user to obtain a previous semester’s Particle Physics exam by entering in their college name and course number. Such websites may disguise the cheating component of their services as homework practice or online tutoring. This contributes to an unclear understanding of what cheating is.

The use of technological devices continues to change the higher educational environment, creating opportunities for use and abuse. For instructors, it is critical to be aware of cheating potential and to develop new detection strategies. For some ideas, check out our recent post, Academic Integrity and Online Physics Homework: 5 Strategies to Combat Cheating.