On the first day of annual High School Certificate (HSC) examinations in India last week, the exam paper on the regional language Odia went viral on social media. Surfacing first in the Nuapada and Dhenkanal districts, the leak forced exam administrators to question how a highly confidential paper was able to be leaked and then circulated on social media.

“As per the system, question papers are transported to nodal centres and kept there in police custody. It was dispatched to exam centres under tight police security. There is no way the paper could leak as the packets were opened in the presence of officials,” School and Mass Education Minister Badri Narayan Patra said, while not denying that the paper had in fact been leaked on social media. The incident is symbolic of a wider trend we are seeing in schools and universities around the world – one that demonstrates the powerful ability of social media and the internet to accommodate academic cheating. In Scotland, hundreds of University of Glasgow medical students were forced to re-sit their clinical exams in 2017 due to similar allegations of cheating, when it was uncovered that a handful of students had posted information about the exam on social media, tipping off students about what would be included in the test.

It seems social media has also given plagiarism a new lease on life. The act of ‘reposting’ another person’s thoughts, opinions, art or humour through social media has become such a norm that it may be harming our very ability to think originally. We have lost, it seems, our respect for original authorship, and we are seeing this translated into the corridors and study rooms of the academic world.

With a mass influx of websites now findable online that will readily produce essays, reports and even theses for online MBA degree students – for a price – it’s no wonder our students are losing respect for originality and good old fashioned hard work. It is simply too easy to cheat in this day and age. In fact, when over 70,000 high school students were surveyed by the International Center for Academic Integrity a few years back, a whopping 58 per cent of them admitted to plagiarism in some form, while 68% per cent of college students admit to “cutting and pasting material from the Internet without citation”. In California alone there were 246 possible cheating incidents during Standardized Testing and Reporting exams, just last year. And a study conducted via the University of Sydney entitled ‘An Approach to Minimising Academic Misconduct and Plagiarism at the University of Sydney, found that the problem of cheating in exams is not trivial — there is an average level of cheating of about 5 per cent across the university, with social media helping students share stolen exam papers and questions quickly.

One study, which examined the effects of social media applications including Facebook, Twitter, Snap Chat on academic dishonesty in higher education found that the majority of students in higher education use such applications to help them regularly with their studies – be it through attempting to understand theories and principles of the work, keeping up with other classmates, understanding assessment requirements and through information sharing. Most, the study found, do not use these applications for cheating or any kind of academic dishonesty however, it did result in an increased likelihood of using phones or other devices to cheat in exams. The study defined academic dishonesty as inclusive of either cheating, plagiarism, fabrication and facilitation, and broadly defined two strands of academic dishonesty: analog cheating and cyber cheating.

In recent years, cyber cheating is cropping up as the more common phenomenon, with most incidents occurring through devices like smartphones, social networks including Facebook, and emails.

Administrators are becoming increasingly aware of cheating through social media platforms by younger students but are perplexed as to how to prevent it from occurring. The entire premise of social media is the act of ‘sharing’ often personal information with one’s followers, with every tween on the planet seemingly unable to do anything without publicising their moves on the internet. Is the sharing of an exam booklet merely keeping ‘in form’ with the world that is social media, then? An innocent share? Helping out one’s virtual pals? Is the answer not in implementing more severe rules and regulations for testing environments but more in re-educating our youth as to how information should be shared and disseminated? In re-inspiring a sense of ownership and pride in one’s own work?

Educators cannot remain trapped in the past and must instead evolve to stay ahead of the times. Their understanding of the motivations of a young person guilty of academic misconduct via the online sharing of exam materials could prevent it from happening again, but by simply clamping down on exam regulations the root of the problem will not ever be properly addressed.