Heloise Pechan's heart rose when she read the essay one of her students, a seemingly uninterested high school sophomore, had turned in for a class assignment on "To Kill a Mockingbird." The paper was clear, logical and well written — a sign, she thought, that she had gotten through to the boy.
Her elation passed quickly. What came next was suspicion.
Pechan, then substitute teaching at a McHenry County high school, went to Google, typed the paper's first sentence ("Kind and understanding, strict but fair, Atticus Finch embodies everything that a father should be") and there it was: The entire essay had been lifted from an online paper mill.
"I went from amazement and excitement to 'Oh my God' in the space of a half-second," Pechan recalled.
That feeling is going around a lot these days. As technology puts massive computing power and the near-sum of human knowledge within a few taps of a touch screen, educators and students say young people are finding new and increasingly devious ways to cheat.
They're going to websites that calculate the answers for their math homework. They're snapping covert photographs of exams and forwarding them to dozens of friends. They're sneaking cheat sheets into the memory banks of their calculators.
Isha Jog, 17, a senior at Hoffman Estates High School, said she has even seen some of her peers getting quiz answers off their cellphones — while the quiz is in progress.
At the same time, technology also is helping to foil digital desperadoes. Teachers are running essays though automated plagiarism detectors. They're using systems that allow them to observe what students are doing with their wireless classroom calculators. And they're using programs to shuffle test questions so every class gets a different version.
Still, experts say cheaters have the upper hand, leaving some educators to look for teaching techniques that are harder to game. But in the file-sharing, cut-and-paste world enabled by the Internet, some say the biggest challenge might be convincing students that what they're doing is wrong.
"I definitely think there's a mindset problem," said Carol Baker, curriculum director for science and music at School District 218, serving Oak Lawn and nearby suburbs, and president of the Illinois Science Teachers Association. "Today, kids are used to obtaining any kind of information they want (online). There are so many things that are free out there. I think kids don't have the same sense of, 'Gee, it's wrong to take something that somebody else wrote.' The Internet encourages all of us to do that."
Eric Anderman, a professor of educational psychology at Ohio State University, has studied student cheating. He says that while it's hard to nail down statistics on its prevalence, the best estimate is that up to 85 percent of high school students have cheated at least once.
It's unclear how digital technology has affected teens' willingness to cheat, he said. What isclear is that it has made dishonesty a lot easier.
"If you have 30 kids in a classroom, it's not easy to catch them," he said. "There's only so much one person can do. The kids really can get away with it."
Students interviewed by the Tribune say the Web has made homework a snap. WolframAlpha can instantly solve the most complicated equations, while Yahoo! Answers is a bazaar of solutions. York High School junior Kathleen O'Brien said some students post homework answers on blogs, too.
"Sometimes entire answer sheets for work sheets can be found online," she said.
As for tests, suburban high school biology teacher Jason Crean said he has heard about students texting exam questions to friends who have his class later in the day. In response, he now makes multiple versions of his tests, a step that has doubled or tripled his preparation time.
He said cheating seems to have become a social obligation that students strive to meet without considering the harm of their actions — not least to themselves.