By Sarah Vander Schaaff

I didn’t go to Harvard, so I don’t often spend my afternoons perusing Harvard Magazine, but it’s sometimes nice to have a friend or colleague share the news of her esteemed alumni publication. In this case, it was a story “Investigating Academic Misconduct” that caught my interest. We’d all heard some of the details of the recent episode, but this story had an inside perspective.

The world could hardly conceal its schadenfreude at the scandal that involved more than half of a large Government class last spring. More than a hundred students, it seemed, had cheated on a take-home exam, their written answers so similar they were suspected of collaborating on their compositions. But the article points to one of the complicating factors: the rules of the game in this Internet age.

The Harvard Student Handbook says students can’t collaborate on exams, a fact reiterated on the exam itself. But the instructions also said the exam was, “open book, open note, open Internet, etc.” The world at large could be a resource, but not an actual buddy. Was it possible the students independently looked at the same lecture notes or other information online? Could they create sloppy but not dishonest answers that were nearly or totally identical?

I don’t know the full decisions of the Harvard College Administrative Board yet, but The New York Times reported that some student athletes involved voluntarily withdrew early this fall.

Cheating should not be more acceptable because of the Internet, but it’s certainly understandable why students growing up in this age need strict definitions of what we mean when we ask them to present work that is “one’s own.” To find an answer is not to create an answer.

Even finding an answer requires, as we know, information literacy. But that, too, is more complex. In researching this subject of academic dishonesty, I found what appeared to be a useful fact sheet created by ETS and the Ad Council. Many other sites, including a class website for a respected college in California, presented the form on their webpages.

But the statistics seemed somewhat dated, as was a reference to a newfangled thing they called “the world wide web” and I realized this fact sheet was created in 1999. To get more information, a person could call 888-88-CHEAT, which I did, and heard what is now a message about how to refinance my mortgage. This, on a fact-sheet about cheating created by the largest test-maker in the world, still floating around the Internet.

Is it no wonder some students are cynical?

Some, but not all.

And after reading a story in the New York Post about a mom who hired a tutor to write her son’s college essay, I was thrilled to read a bit of good news.

The Josephson Institute of Ethics announced the results of its latest national survey of 23,000 young people in a press release this past November.

“For the First Time in a Decade, Lying, Cheating and Stealing Among American Students Drops.”

The founder of the institute, Michael Josephson, said in the press release, “Changes in children’s behavior of this magnitude suggest a major shift in parenting and school involvement in issues of honesty and character.” He went on to credit his own program, CHARACTER COUNTS!, which is said to reach 8 million students a year.

What did the study show?

In 2010, 59% of students admitted they had cheated on an exam in the past year, by 2012, that number was 51%.

In 2010, 34% of students said they copied an Internet document for an assignment. In 2012, 32% said they had.

In 2010, 61% said they had lied to a teacher and 80% said they’d lied to a parent about something significant. In 2012, those numbers were 55% and 76%.

These numbers show a reverse in the trend, but I imagine many, like me, still think the numbers sound high. And, according to The Josephson Institute, behavior in high school correlates to behavior in the grown-up world.

The Institute did a survey in 2009 that found, “…current age and attitudes about the need to cheat and actual high school cheating are significant predictors of lying and cheating across a wide range of adult situations.” Those situations include how one relates to customers, a boss, a spouse, and even the IRS.

How we talk about and define cheating, especially in the age of the Internet really matters. It matters, too, what stories we bring into the spotlight. It’s much more interesting to talk about the 100 or so students caught cheating at a highly respected college than it is the thousands who quietly take the high road, perhaps getting a lower grade, but holding to their core ideas about honesty even when the situations are ambiguous.

It matters because of another fact revealed by the Josephson Institute’s latest study:

One in five high school boys agrees with this statement: “It’s not cheating if everyone is doing it.”

Everyone isn’t. We just need to hear about them.

Are you a teacher or parent who has dealt with the issue of cheating in the Internet era? Is it different than before? Has the initiative to teach character slowed the pace of academic dishonesty?

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