Cheat Codes: Students Search For Shortcuts as Virtual Schooling Expands
An eighth grader looks up answers on a cell phone while he is taking an online quiz at home. The pandemic has forced many Oklahoma school districts to shift to part-time or full-time online learning this year. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)
Computer programmer Gradyn Wursten still updates a project he created to hack his high school homework.
As a sophomore, he used an old MacBook with a cracked screen and bulging battery to write the code that adds shortcuts to Edgenuity — an online education platform used by more than 3 million students.
Once installed, his program can skip videos and automatically fill practice questions with answers — progressing straight to quizzes and tests.
Instead of watching a 30-minute history lesson on the Iroquois, students can cut right to the quiz. And those answers are often easily found on the web.
The hacks make it possible to complete a course much faster, students say.
Wursten is more computer savvy than most, but his quest for shortcuts is typical. His program, developed from his home in Heber City, Utah, has been downloaded 40,000 times by students across the country. In the past month, he gained 2,000 new users, including more than 100 in Oklahoma.
And his tool is just one of many available to savvy students.
Entire test keys and quiz answers are posted to homework help websites. Smartphone apps take a photo of a question and produce the answer. Students connect on social media or text groups to share answers. There are even tricks to fake attendance in a Zoom class — demonstrated by a teen’s viral Tik Tok video.
Schools’ large-scale shift to virtual education amid COVID-19 is challenging the system of determining what students actually know and limiting educators’ ability to ensure academic integrity.
Cheating has always been an issue in schools, but there is little getting in the way for students today. Shared answers have become even more accessible as districts have adopted or expanded their use of popular online learning programs like Edgenuity, which delivers the same content to students across the country.
Many schools adopted such virtual programs in a matter of months to adapt to the ongoing public health crisis. Seventy percent of Oklahoma districts had a virtual option at the start of this school year, and 7.5% were exclusively online, according to a state Department of Education survey.
But when students are not inside classrooms, it becomes more difficult to ensure they are actually learning, teachers say.
“Everything my kids are doing at home is a cheatable assignment, which makes that in-class time so incredibly valuable,” said Elanna Dobbs, who teaches English at Edmond Memorial High School.
Edmond is using a blended schedule, where students attend class some days and are virtual from home the rest of the week.
Dobbs, who has been teaching 19 years, said on virtual days, she relies on class discussions or assignments that task students with providing individual thoughts on what they’ve learned. In other words, the type of assignments they can’t just Google.
Many students aren’t getting any in-person class time, though.
Virtual charter schools are experiencing a surge of enrollment, a trend underway before the pandemic. These schools don’t have classrooms and the students learn mostly from home. Epic Charter Schools says it has 61,000 students enrolled — representing about 1 in 10 Oklahoma students. Other statewide virtual charter schools are experiencing increases.
In virtual charter schools, teachers provide less direct instruction than in a traditional school, with the curriculum program delivering most of the lessons. Parents are expected to fill in the gaps and oversee the learning process.
Research shows it doesn’t work very well. Students enrolled full-time in virtual charter schools learned an equivalent of 72 days fewer in reading and 180 days fewer in math than students in brick-and-mortar schools over one academic year, according to a 2015 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, a non-partisan research center at Stanford University.
Now, those same methods are being adopted by traditional school districts with the tens of thousands of Oklahoma students attending school from home.
And yet, critics — from parents to the president — have deemed online education inadequate. “Now that we have witnessed it on a large scale basis, and firsthand, Virtual Learning has proven to be TERRIBLE compared to In School, or On Campus, Learning,” President Donald Trump tweeted July 10.
That month, in Norman, parents railed against a plan to use Edgenuity teachers for all students enrolling in the district’s virtual program. They spoke out at board meetings, and wrote a letter to the district, calling it “troubling” that Edgenuity was their only virtual option within the district.
“Our children deserve to have personal interactions with local teachers and classmates as part of their virtual school experience during this pandemic,” they wrote. They urged the district to, among other requests, provide an option for students to learn from Norman teachers, not from “an out-of-state, for-profit venture.”
The district relented and quickly developed an in-house virtual program, in addition to offering Edgenuity.
Relying on Teachers to Spot Discrepancies from Afar
Technology provides some cheating protections. Edgenuity features a locking browser, which restricts students from opening other tabs and programs while the learning platform is open. Epic and Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy say their teachers can require exams to be proctored, where the student is monitored remotely through a webcam.
Students can bypass these protections. Often, it’s no more difficult than pulling up answers on a smartphone. A 2018 study by Pew Research Center found 95% of teens have a smartphone, or at least access to one. Even kindergarten students know how to ask a smart speaker their homework questions.
Yet the companies providing the lessons say it’s up to users to provide the accountability and prevent cheating.
“Edgenuity trusts the integrity of teachers, administrations, and even students themselves, to ensure that students learn and succeed fairly,” wrote Deborah Rayow, Edgenuity’s Vice President of Instructional Design & Learning Science, in response to Oklahoma Watch’s questions.
Edgenuity, an Arizona-based online curriculum company, is being used by at least some virtual students in Norman, Union, Stillwater and other school districts.
Another program, Exact Path, is being used in more than 400 Oklahoma districts. The state Education Department used CARES Act funds to enter into a $2.6 million contract with parent company, Edmentum, to offer Exact Path free to districts. Exact Path is an online learning tool that can be used for assessment and instruction in kindergarten through 12th grade.
Districts are, in some cases, using Exact Path even when school is in-person, to make it easier to pivot to distance learning because of an outbreak or need to quarantine.
Edmentum says because Exact Path adapts to individual students, it is difficult to use online social networks to find answers. And the company works with popular homework help sites like Quizlet and Brainly to “ensure our content is not posted on their sites,” a spokesperson said.
Exact Path also alerts teachers to unusual behavior — such as answering too quickly.
LIke Edgenuity, Edmentum emphasizes teachers’ responsibility to prevent cheating.
One of the most effective things teachers can do to prevent cheating is to design their own online curriculum, or at least supplement the platform’s assignments with their own, said Derald Glover, assistant executive director of the Oklahoma Association of School Administrators.
The bare minimum schools should be doing this year is placing a student on a virtual school platform and letting them go, he said. Additional safeguards teachers can add are class discussions via Zoom, or having students submit videos of themselves explaining their answers.
Glover said he’s encouraging educators to treat online tools as a digital textbook, and design virtual courses themselves.
But that takes time.
“We think it’s going to take most of this year to realistically build really rich teacher-developed (virtual) courses,” Glover said.
At-Home Learning Assumes Parents Can Supervise
Parents are showing little patience to wait. The fervor over inadequate education at home is growing, and the lack of teacher interaction is one of the main reasons.
Norman schools bent to parental pressure and transitioned to in-person school in late September, despite no change in the Cleveland County’s color-coded coronavirus risk designation.
A group of Stillwater parents filed a lawsuit against the district to force a return to classrooms. The district of 6,300 students uses Edgenuity for students who chose full-time virtual learning.
Parent Nicole Wisel wishes her children’s school district, Cimarron Public Schools, would return to paper, pencils and textbooks instead of using Edgenuity.
“We hate it,” said Wisel, who has children in seventh, eighth and 11th grades. “Our teachers are being paid to be proctors, and that’s it. They don’t even know what these kids are doing.”
The prerecorded video lessons are too long, she says, and one of her children, who is autistic, says the instructors in the videos are “creepy.”
Chuck Anglin, Cimarron Public Schools’ superintendent, said he likes to use Edgenuity to offer extra classes in a normal year. Choosing it for virtual learning this year was making “the best of a bad situation,” he said.
He agrees that when kids are learning from home, the onus to prevent cheating is mostly on parents.
“We are not programmed for distance learning,” said Anglin, whose school district is located 12 miles west of Enid. “We are programmed to have the kids there, where we can see their faces, we can read their eyes, we can tell if they are still engaged. We can see if they’re looking around to see if anybody’s watching while they’ve got their phone in their lap.”
Researchers at the National Education Policy Center, a research center at the University of Colorado Boulder, found that relying on a computer program to teach and assess is one of the most detrimental aspects of online education.
The researchers found these programs actually impede and marginalize the teacher’s role. “Teachers may be unable to see how their students earned the designation of mastery of a goal because in some applications, the software, not the teacher, determines questions asked and the grades assigned,” they wrote in a 2019 report.
They also found that students would just look up answers on their computers — in a separate browser or on a smartphone — while taking assessments. The students quickly realize a computer is easy to trick compared to a human teacher.
This is at the heart of the cheating issue. Are students spending school days engaged in live lessons with a local teacher who is crafting curriculum to meet their needs? Or are they watching videos that explain content and clicking through multiple choice questions?
Katie Harris teaches senior English at Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy, a statewide virtual school run by the national company K12, Inc. In her first year, students turned in a lot of plagiarized essays, she said. Now, she knows she has to rewrite her lessons, assignments, quizzes and tests every year.
“I say, ‘look, if I Google this exact writing prompt, I can find whole essays online. Don’t do that,’” she said.
K12 schools use their own virtual curriculum, not Edgenuity or Exact Path. A plagiarism detection service, Turnitin, automatically scans students’ work.
At Epic Charter Schools, the state’s largest virtual school, teachers can be responsible for students in all grades and subjects — and outside what they are certified to teach. Families can choose from more than a dozen learning platforms (Edgenuity and Exact Path among them), making it particularly difficult to supplement or build their own course.
To prevent cheating, Epic teachers proctor students’ benchmarking tests — in person, if possible, or via video conference, said Shelly Hickman, a spokeswoman for Epic. Teachers also can investigate if there are major discrepancies in a student’s scores on daily work compared to the proctored exams.
But Epic teachers are only required to meet with students face-to-face once every three weeks. Some teachers will meet more frequently, depending on the families’ needs.
Online Classes Create a ‘Psychological Distance’
Psychologists who study human behavior have found that most people will cheat — not a lot, but a little. Researcher Dan Ariely calls this the “fudge factor.”
Ariely, a professor at Duke University and author of the book “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty,” explains how and why cheating in online courses is easier than in a physical classroom.
“Gone are the quaint days of minutely lettered cheat sheets, formulas written on the underside of baseball cap bills, sweat-smeared key words on students’ palms. Now it’s just a student sitting alone at home, looking up answers online and simply filling them in,” he wrote in this article eight years ago, when virtual schools were still fairly new to Oklahoma.
He says the physical distance provided by online classes — distance from the teacher, the students, and the school building — creates a psychological distance that “allows people to further relax their moral standards.”
It’s also true that cheating exists on a continuum. Wursten, for instance, drew the line at automating quiz and test answers — the graded content.
Wursten, who graduated in 2019 and is now certified to work in IT, still adds features to his program — called Edgentweaks — as a “fun side project,” and because he wants to help other students avoid the drudgery he once faced.
Meanwhile, Edgenuity has patched his hacks in a virtual game of cat and mouse.
“I’ve found ways that I could automatically get the correct answers for things like tests and quizzes, but I did not actually write a tweak for it because I consider that cheating,” Wursten said. “I don’t intend to actually make a cheat tool.”
Even apps and websites created to assist students on their virtual learning path have been co-opted into cheat tools.
Brainly has a smartphone app that lets students scan homework or test questions, and answers pop up immediately. On Quizlet, another homework help website, entire test keys are posted and shared among students. Even pre-written essays are easily found, students say. Photomath, another app, produces not only the answer to a math problem, but all the steps needed for students to show their work.
Brainly and Quizlet have policies against cheating. But that’s unlikely to deter students, whether they are enrolled in a virtual school or are attending class face-to-face.
Mackenzie Snovel, who graduated from Owasso last year, said she found 90% of the answers for her senior English and history classes online — and even used Brainly to complete her final exam.
She said she didn’t see an issue with looking up answers because “they were classes I needed to graduate and none of that information I will need in my career.”
Technology is No Substitute
With students and teachers separated by distance, some of the academic integrity responsibility falls to the IT department.
They block websites known to be used for cheating. They may facilitate online exam proctoring, where students are monitored while taking a test through their webcam.
At Union Public Schools near Tulsa, the district has implemented several of these security measures but only on school-owned devices. Most students can easily access another device, though.
While Union is using Edgenuity for all middle and high school students who chose virtual this year, teachers will be adding in extra assignments to supplement the online tool, said Gart Morris, the district’s executive director of instructional technology.
“The curriculum in Edgenuity is limited,” he said. “Our own teachers are beefing up the curriculum to meet our standards.”
The district has about 2,700 middle and high school students who chose virtual learning this year. He believes the best tool to combat cheating is cementing the student to teacher relationships.
“It’s always a challenge to get one step ahead. There’s thousands of them and there’s not thousands of us,” Morris said. “You can look at technology in a way to try to prevent cheating but nothing works as well as a good solid relationship between students and an adult.”
Oklahoma Watch reporter Whitney Bryen contributed to this report.
This story is part of a collaboration with Oklahoma Watch through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.