Olivia Meleta, a high school math teacher, is photographed near her Thornhill, Ont., home on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020. From texting friends on the sly to downloading apps that spit out answers, educators say the pandemic-induced move to an online classroom has offered up a wealth of tech-driven workarounds to actually doing the work. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Olivia Meleta, a high school math teacher, is photographed near her Thornhill, Ont., home on Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020. From texting friends on the sly to downloading apps that spit out answers, educators say the pandemic-induced move to an online classroom has offered up a wealth of tech-driven workarounds to actually doing the work. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Cheating a ‘free-for-all’ at virtual high schools, Canadian teachers say

Stress from the pandemic has collided with the pressure to get good grades

It took less than a month for students attending virtual school to devise new ways to cheat.

From texting friends on the sly to downloading apps that spit out answers, educators say the pandemic-induced move to an online classroom has offered up a wealth of tech-driven workarounds to actually doing the work.

Olivia Meleta, a high school math teacher in Thornhill, Ont., said she realized something was amiss in late September when several students learning virtually submitted tests with matching solutions — using a method she and her colleagues don’t teach.

“It was a very convoluted way of doing things,” she said. “Their solution was about 20 steps … The process in class would have been around five or six.”

A colleague explained what was likely going on, she said. The students had apparently downloaded an app called Photomath, ostensibly meant to be a teaching tool.

The app — one of several — scans a photo of a math problem and offers a step-by-step guide on how to solve it.

Photomath, which was founded in Croatia in 2014, claims to have more than 150 million downloads globally, at least a million of them from teachers.

The company has created a “best practices” guide in collaboration with teachers to show how it can be incorporated into the classroom, a company spokeswoman said.

“The guide focuses on three core principles: reinforcing concepts learned in the classroom, providing a way to check homework assignments, and accelerating individual learning,” Jennifer Lui said.

Mathway, a similar app, also boasts about “millions of users and billions of problems solved.” Its purpose, it says, is to “make quality on-demand math assistance accessible to all students.”

And while experts say the software can be a legitimate teaching tool for students doing homework, teachers have had to find ways to safeguard tests against it.

Meleta, for instance, has downloaded Photomath and runs all of her test questions through it.

“If it solved it exactly as I would — in other words, if I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference — then I would not include that question,” she said.

She’s also come up with ways to prevent some of the more conventional cheating methods, which have gotten a high-tech twist in the era of Zoom school.

There’s the new take on an old classic: copying answers from friends, now sent over text message rather than passed via paper note.

To mitigate this, Meleta writes four or five versions of the same test so students realize that sharing answers takes more time than it’s worth.

The drawback, of course, is that it takes up more of her time.

“All my weekends, all my weekday evenings, were kind of eaten up,” she said.

And Meleta said her methods can only go so far. There are some factors — like getting real-time answers from a tutor or math savant sibling — that can’t be helped.

Anecdotally, she said, she’s seen an uptick in cheating since students started attending school remotely, though she noted it’s still a minority of students who partake.

“It’s much easier, of course, when you’re not being monitored,” she said. “Before, it was like, ‘OK, if I try to look off of someone else’s paper, my teacher is going to see me. And I know that is wrong.’”

Cheryl Costigan, who also teaches high school math in Thornhill, said her students are “cheating a lot more than they ever have in the past.”

“It’s just a free-for-all. Everybody’s cheating all the time,” she said.

“The very first test that we had, you could hear the cameras clicking,” she said. “So they then smartened up and turned off the clicking sound, but you could still tell that the tests were all a group effort.”

She, too, has noticed students using Photomath. But it’s not just that. She’s realized she can’t use questions from old math textbooks on tests, because the answers are just a Google search away.

Costigan said she feels for the students, who are facing an unprecedented amount of stress.

The changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic are one aspect, she said, but the weight of parents’ expectations can be equally impactful.

“Their parents are putting stress that they want to get into university,” she said. “So they kind of feel like they’ve got to get that mark, and they really don’t care about the cheating anymore. It’s just become second nature.”

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

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