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EdTech helps teachers teach (and students cheat)

By Sandra Zaragoza / June 30, 2014

EdTech is helps teachers teach (and students cheat)

Advertisers often set an idyllic scene of a 21st Century classroom, with a teacher grading on his iPad while a group of wide-eyed students circle around their mobile devices, discovering and learning.

That scene isn’t far from reality. With a sea of digital information at our collective fingertips, teachers do often point students to their laptops and phones to research authors, get help with equations, or look for artistic inspiration. Empowering students to do independent research, think critically, and distinguish credible sources from sketchy websites is a good thing, educators say.

The downside is that mobile also has a dark side. With all this unprecedented connectivity, students can also use their devices to cheat on tests, plagiarize essays, and book reports or gain a little too much “inspiration” on art assignments. With the prevalence of mobile devices and the sheer volume of information to check against, mobile cheating has become a real problem for institutions and educators.

To solve the cheating quandary, some teachers and administrators are turning to a handful of mobile app purveyors that specialize in plagiarism detection tools—effectively fighting mobile with mobile.

Head of the class

Turnitin—the current leader in plagiarism-prevention tech—said it’s noticing a growing demand for its services. It has reviewed more than 55 million student papers from more than 1,000 education institutions in the United States.

Recently, the company unveiled the Turnitin iPad app, which offers grading tools and plagiarism checks. The app is free for teachers and professors who work for an institution that licenses Turnitin.

Turnitin’s Originality Report checks students’ work for improper citation or potential plagiarism by comparing against billions of web pages, millions of student papers, and leading library databases and publications. The report highlights suspicious content that matches an outside source and gives users the ability to compare the documents in a side-by-side window display. The report gives a percentage, say 29%, meaning that 29% of the students’ paper matched with outside sources. Educators can personalize the report by adding filters, such as excluding quoted text, bibliography material, and changing the size of possible text matches.

Turnitin has smartly packaged its anti-plagiarism technology with a toolbox that lets educators create their own grading rubric, give detailed feedback and better tracked changes. The company reports a 52% improvement in feedback quality, 31% time saved grading, and 46% increase in student engagement.

That said, customer reviews of the relatively new app have been lackluster. One complaint was the newest version of the iPad app crashed often and had issues with its audio playback feature. And unlike the web product, the app doesn’t allow student input. One of the company’s selling points is how it grants students access to their Originality Reports so they can see how they may have inappropriately used or referenced source materials. If Turnitin wants to keep up with the wave of tablets entering classrooms, they’ll need to fill that void before they become of victim of fact checking.

Channeling Picasso

Imagine a design teacher walking up to a student’s masterpiece, snapping a photo, and running it through a search engine that instantly tells them their precious wunderkind is actually nothing more than a thief. Tineye MobileEngine—a reverse image search engine built by Idee—boasts sophisticated image recognition technology that can check images against its growing multibillion-file index in about half a second.


A cross between Google Images and a QR Code reader, TinEye MobileEngine app works with either an uploaded photo or a URL of an image. Snap a photo of the image you would like to check, upload it, and receive potential matches. The maximum image sizes for an upload is 1 MB.

TinEye’s free search engine allows users up to 50 searches per day, while its high-volume paid search bundles aimed at large businesses start at $200 for the basic MatchEngine service, and go up to as much as $1,500 for 150,000 searches. TinEye’s commercial accounts use the same user-friendly interface as

One of TinEye’s advantages is that it has been designed to work with lower-quality photos, color changes, cropping, rotations, skews, and other tweaks. The company says its technology can find full or partial matches to flat objects such as paintings and posters and even wine labels still on the bottle. One free app user said he took a picture of his Apple screen saver and, within a few seconds, found out he was looking at sand dunes in Brazil. Some complained that the company’s database was not extensive enough, but TinEye says it is consistently adding to their 5 billion-plus image index.

Block brigade

Rather than creating a classroom disruption by catching cheaters in the act, educators can launch a preemptive attack by simply placing a communication signal blocking device next to the apple on their desk. Some portable jammers on the market are capable of blocking out 2G, 3G, and 4G cellphone signals in their immediate area, making it impossible for students to text or Snapchat each other answers during a closed-book test.

The jammers are relatively small, portable, and can easily be hidden in a classroom. Its battery will power the signal blocker for 1.5 hours, which is way longer than the average student’s attention span anyways.

If you can’t beat them, teach them

Some instructors are trying to curb EdTech cheating by doing what they do best, teaching. The thought here is if educators show their students how to use their mobile devices to produce rewarding and original academic work—rather than handing them a tablet and vaguely saying, “No cheating”—they’ll have a better shot and creating a generation of honest pupils.

One successful strategy includes establishing a clear set of classroom rules that outline what is and isn’t considered cheating. A digital native may not understand where to draw the line between collegial collaboration and cheating. Clearly, a student shouldn’t share test answers to another student, but what if they were just reaching out to a friend for help on homework. Setting a clear plagiarism policy as a school or classroom could help students avoid becoming unwitting cheaters.

Educators are also finding that while digital natives are accustomed to vast amounts of user-generated content, they don’t always know how to distinguish a trusted source from a non-trusted source. Teachers are showing students that there is a distinction between a credible source—like a government agency or the New York Times—and a non-credible source—such as a run-of-the-mill blog.

With so many blurred lines, developers can help educators and students who are looking for guidance and tools that are consistent and simple to use. And with a surprisingly small amount of anti-cheating software on the market, the real 21st Century classroom is ripe for EdTech innovation.

Sandra Zaragoza is a writer and media relations manager at UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering. You can follow her on Twitter at @ZaragozaAustin.