December 1, 2021

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How Kids Are Using iPhones to ‘Cheat’ at School (and How to Do It Smarter)

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Photo: Khamosh Pathak

This video from TikTok has recently gone viral. In it, a student in a lecture hall uses Apple’s new Live Text feature to photograph another student’s laptop screen, then converts the picture into text, saves it, and thus “steals” the other student’s notes.

While news organizations from Newsweek to the New York Post feature headlines that characterize the video as a student “cheating,” it looks more like a cool new feature being used in the wild than anything super unethical. We don’t know if the student in the video got the note-taker’s permission, but even if they didn’t, this isn’t cheating in the same way that smuggling answers to a test or paying someone at some janky website to write your Biology paper is cheating.

If you miss a lecture, borrowing and copying someone else’s notes isn’t cheating, and it wouldn’t be cheating to record a lecture and then run it through the speech-to-text app that comes with any word processing program either. So I’m not sure what the big deal is.

How kids cheat with their smartphones

A 2017 survey from McAafee found that nearly a third of teenagers had cheated in school using their smartphones, and this was back when school was all in-person. (Remote learning offers a golden buffet of cheating options too wide to get into here.)

In the study, scofflaw pupils reported using their phones to look up answers on the internet, text a (presumably smarter) friend, take photos of notes and sneak looks at them during tests, and take pictures of test questions to disseminate to their no-account buddies taking the test later in the day.

This app, Photomath, is a perfect example of the the advantages phones could give cheaters. It allows users to take a photograph of a math problem, and it gives you the solution and tells you the steps to arrive at that solution. It’s a great aid for learning math, like a better version of printing the answers in the back of the text book, but it could be used as a great cheat device too.

Still, the limitations of the cell phone as a cheating medium seem like they’d outweigh the benefits. Specifically, you’d be more likely to get caught.

In defense of the humble cheat sheet

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think a simple cheat sheet (or writing the answers on your palm) are better cheating tools than a phone. Using a cell phone during a test is practically a billboard that says “I’m cheating.” I have to believe that all but the most burnt-out educators would notice a kid slipping out their iPhone during a history quiz, and trust me, they know exactly which kids to watch.

Phones are big. They emits light and potentially sound. They can’t be crumpled up into a tiny ball and palmed. They can’t be combined with a water bottle for a really complex cheating system, and they can’t be swallowed like a cheat sheet, or quickly smudged away like “hand notes” to get rid of evidence. Advantage: Old school.

The special case for calculators

I have heard that calculators are often allowed during test taking in the kinds of advanced math classes I spent my academic career avoiding. These calculators, I have heard, can contain archived files that won’t be deleted even if a savvy math teacher wipes the calc’s RAM before the finals. There’s an interesting discussion of this on reddit that you can consult if this applies to you, Nerdlinger.

The earbud margin of error

The one big advantage cell phones have over cheat sheets is the earbuds. Earbuds are like a cheater’s dream. If you have long enough hair, you can hide an earbud in one ear and play a continuous audio loop of the answers to your test and no one will ever suspect. But to do that, you’d have to be thinking ahead.

Like the water-bottle-label-cheat and all other elaborate cheating methods, I suspect “cheating with earbuds” is more of an urban legend than a widespread practice, mainly because it would take a lot of preparation. You’d have to record yourself reading the answers to the test, presumably in something like the right order, make sure the audio track played in a loop, style your hair to cover it, and act nonchalant. But when you understand the material enough to record it and you’re prepared enough to try to pull this off, you might as well just study.

Are kids actually cheating this elaborately?

I suspect most kids who cheat are the opposite of the type who prepares elaborate schemes. They’re the ones who aren’t prepared, got the test day wrong, or worked a long shift the night before, and now they’re embarrassed for not being ready and just want to find some way not to bring home another D-minus. I’d guess looking at the paper of the kid next to you is way more prevalent than any more complicated cheating method.

 

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