Everything’s going digital these days — even cheating.

Educators are on the lookout for new kinds of cheating as students gain access to sophisticated gadgets both at school and at home. Kids are finding new ways to get ahead when they haven’t studied, from digitally inserting answers into soft drink labels to texting each other test answers and photos of exams.

YouTube alone has dozens of videos that lay out step-by-step instructions: One three-minute segment shows how to digitally scan the wrapper of a soft drink bottle, then use photo editing software to erase the nutrition information and replace it with test answers or handy formulas. The video has gotten nearly 7 million hits.

“There’s an epidemic of cheating,” says Robert Bramucci, vice chancellor for technology and learning services at South Orange Community College District in Mission Viejo, Calif. “We’re not catching them. We’re not even sure it’s going on.”

Several security-related companies, such as, will even overnight-mail a kit that turns a cellphone or iPod into a hands-free personal cheating device, featuring tiny wireless earbuds, that allows a test-taker to discreetly “phone a friend” during a test and get answers remotely without putting down the pencil.

One Toronto firm named ExamEar shut down its website after authorities investigated how it was selling $300 Bluetooth devices to desperate exam candidates.

Common Sense Media, a non-profit advocacy group, finds that more than 35% of teens ages 13 to 17 with cellphones have used the devices to cheat. More than half (52%) admit to some form of cheating involving the Internet, and many don’t consider it a big deal. For instance, only 41% say storing notes on a cellphone to access during a test is a “serious offense.” Nearly one in four (23%) don’t think it’s cheating at all.

But authorities are increasingly getting tough on cheating. Police in Nassau County, N.Y., on Long Island, this fall arrested 20 teens at five public and private schools in an SAT cheating ring. Five are accused of taking SAT and ACT tests for other students, who paid up to $3,600 for the service, authorities say.

An Orange County, Calif., student pleaded guilty in March to stealing Advanced Placement tests and altering college transcripts. Prosecutors say Omar Shahid Khan, 21, pilfered a teacher’s password for the school’s grading system by installing spyware on school computers.

In a 2007 case, two students in China used the wireless devices to cheat on an English exam but had to be hospitalized afterward to have the tiny earbuds removed, according to China Daily.

“This is about the pressures that kids are feeling in school,” says Jill Madenberg, a Great Neck, N.Y., college consultant. “The pressure to do well, the pressure to get into a good college.”

She says cheating like the kind seen in Long Island isn’t isolated. “It’s literally all over the country — it’s an epidemic of sorts.”

A former high school guidance counselor, Madenberg says that perhaps the only positive aspect of the Long Island SAT scandal is that it will begin a discussion on the pressures kids feel. “There’s no question that people are beginning to look at that,” she says.

Digital devices haven’t necessarily made cheating happen more often, experts say. They’ve just make it harder to detect.

“The naïve folk belief is that cheating never used to be a problem,” Bramucci says. “It’s always been a problem.”

Problems like detecting cheating boil down to what Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “cognitive bias.” If teachers can’t see it happening in front of them, they’re unlikely to believe it’s happening and so they’re less likely to try to prevent it. But Bramucci says educators “are lousy detectors at cheating.”

To prove his point, a few years ago he brought in a group of students to take a mock test and instructed them to cheat in a handful of different ways, all under the gaze of South Orange professors, who watched and took notes.

“They didn’t even get a third of the ways people were cheating, even when they knew they were cheating and it was happening right before their eyes,” Bramucci says.

Photo credit: EDUC6040Fall10

Via USA Today