May 25, 2006

High-tech “Cheaters”

Posted in Higher Education at 11:39 am by ndsmith

An article by Ira Socol, “Stop Chasing High-Tech Cheaters,” itself a response to recent NYT article, “Colleges Chases as Cheats Shift to Higher Tech,” presents a very interesting issue concerning evaluation procedures in institutions of higher ed. Perhaps these different perspectives represent a changing of the guard in terms of teaching methods: the younger generation of grad students like Socol embrace methods of “research”/”cheating” enabled by newer technology, while the older generation cringes at the thought that students might use “spell check” on in-class exams (prompting one journalism professor to have his students write their computer-aided exams with screens facing him). In any case, I am sure that my colleagues and friends are forced to ponder, as grading season is in full force, how should we evaluate our students?

Socol’s argument isn’t perfect, but I do like the perspective it offers. I had a wonderful High School biology professor, Dr. King, who used to say that you shouldn’t have to learn anything you could find out by looking up. In our Google-ized world, it may seem that there is very little left to know that cannot be “looked up” instantaneously. I sympathize with the remark, cited by Socol, “Why aren’t colleges teaching students how to research, organize and evaluate the information that is out there?” instead of continuing to demand from them rote memorization of facts that could so easily be found on-line.

Well, I agree that what we need to teach is effective research methods. But what are those methods? And could they include perhaps some of the mechanical practices that students have been tested on for ages? For instance, I have my students write in-class exams because I feel that one important skill in conducting research is the capacity to organize thoughts quickly and spontaneously, and then write these out coherently. I also think that handwriting is important, even in our world of the emerging hand-held PC, because hand-written notes cannot be eliminated when organizing research. I also personally find that there is something added by physically altering what one is working on (but that may be itself passé). However, the proposition I submit to my students is this: if your thoughts are not legible, they are not intelligible, and so they are not useful for research. In short, there certainly are some “old fashioned” practices, such as memorization, good spelling, etc. that remain indispensable, even in a high-tech world.

There is, of course, the issue of citation, which is an important research skill that I find very few college students have mastered. But I don’t see why this couldn’t be integrated with the use of new technologies. Websites ought to be cited just as books or articles ought to be cited. And perhaps technologically related techniques (such as word-searching an electronic database) ought to be acknowledged in certain cases.

The thing that always struck me about the outrage against cheaters is that it seems to be fueled by a kind of moral taboo: that there are certain practices which ought to be absolutely forbidden. For my part, I prefer a more aesthetic judgment: poor work is poor work and students who cheat generally do poor work. Apart from the wholesale purchasing of pre-written papers, something that I have never personally encountered, any case of cheating ought to be fairly recognizable: there are invariably sudden shifts in subject-matter and diction, students use obscure material not covered in the course, or introduce an example or fact without the requisite development and understanding of it. But these stylistic indicators of a “cheater” are also simply indications of poorly written papers. In my view they should be graded accordingly.

What is more, if paper topics and exam questions are geared toward evaluating what students have learned from the course, then issue of cheating should effectively be moot. That is to say, Googled research or purchased external papers are obviously not going to pertain directly to what particular instructors have taught in their particular courses. So these students will fail to demonstrate that they have actually internalized the teaching from the course. But herein lies the rub: how do we really evaluate the learning process? How do we judge whether students have internalized the infomation and methods that we are trying to convey to them?

Maybe the moral outrage against “cheating” funnels a deeper frustration about how to approach the very difficult task that is education.



  1. Ira Socol said,

    I like the arguments here. There is, of course, some real truth in what you say, but I am always confused about some arguments.

    First, is every book in a library – even a university library – a valid source? How about at Barnes and Noble? What about in The New York Times? For example, as I pointed out, the Times went a week letting the world think Airbus Industrie was actually trying to sell “standing room” planes. This was picked up by news sources around the world (see that week’s New Yorker cover art). The internet is like every other source of information in that we must teach effective evaluation techniques, but here’s where it is different. I sat in a classroom last night watching a video – by the end of the video I had 26 Firefox tabs open, detailing falsehoods in the video from multiple, reliable sources. Other students had done similar work. The resultant discourse was dramatically more informative because of this.

    This is not just an academic exercise. This technique is an integral part of the work world, and will be an essential part of our students’ futures.

    But secondly, no, legible handwriting is not essential. Perhaps I can say this because no one (including me) can read my handwriting. Perhaps I can say this because I work with a steady stream of students who can not read or write in traditional ways (in my work in Vocational Rehabilitation). Perhaps I say this because I know important researchers who can not pick up a pen. This is where technology builds equality and access. I sit in the library with my laptop and portable scanner. There’s nary a hand-written note involved.

    Finally, yes, it is generational (though I am surely older than you are guessing). Education has always fought against technology – part of its role in Social Reproduction. That may be part of why education has seemed so irrelevant to so many, for so long.

  2. ndsmith said,

    Thank you for the comment. Two things: I didn’t mean to assert anything that would contradict what you say in the second paragraph regarding reliability of sources. I had another great High School history teacher who drilled into our heads: “check your sources.” This is surely a first principle of any good research.

    And second, thanks for bringing to the attention of the discussion the issue of handicaps and traditionally forms of evaluation. I think you’re absolutely right. I don’t have the kind of contact you do with learning disabilities. But I do often have ESL students, and just last year I discovered a student (who was clearly bright but had difficulty finishing his work on time) who ended up testing for a learning disability. Paying attention to these needs is certainly something we are called to do as instructors and also one of the ways we can use technology to our advantage.

    I wonder, though, how far this extends into the realm of evaluation and “cheating.” Surely no one would deny someone who had a identifiable disability from writing in-class assignments with the help of a computer. But is the incapacity to spell correctly without a spell checker a handicap? Or is the lack of attention to details, like sentence and paragraph structure, well-formed ideas, or grammar, something that we should let pass under the bridge of high-speed user-friendly word processing? Or, more gravely, should we not ask students to be conscientious about what sources they use and how they cite these sources (this is the biggest problem with “cheating” that I encounter) because they happened to cut and paste something into their paper and then forgot where they found it (this is actually an excuse that I have had students use with me).

    Technology is a powerful to, but it can also be difficult to manage. We need to teach the managment side, I reckon.

  3. Ira Socol said,

    Let me answer this way – I can get past spelling with students – no problem. I can help them spot grammatical mistakes, but I need to teach and fight for coherence and comprehension and in-depth understanding. No amount of “Assistive Technology” (or “UDL Tech,” as I prefer to call it) can make incoherence coherent. Nor can I solve laziness or sloppiness. I think the citation issue is massive, as is the analysis of validity. So the other thing that happened in that class last night was that we really looked in to how rates nations. We discovered (when the prof didn’t know) that it is a small coterie of American profs, all of whom link to a certain political mindset. That doesn’t invalidate their data, but it surely demands that we find other avenues of confirming it. The immediate question was – how to bring that kind of exercise into undergraduate courses.

    Technology is powerful. Knowledge is powerful. To use either or both intelligently is the challenge, no?

  4. ndsmith said,

    Agreed. Again, the points you raise are valuable.

    This is why I think the *real* issue with cheating is linked to our methods of instruction and evaluation. How do we address laziness or sloppiness as you say? It is probably at least in part be a matter of simple mechanics, like grammar, spelling, punctuation. I mean the link between how we use language and the way we think is deep. But we shouldn’t become fixated on these kinds of minor issues at the expense of utilizing and embracing the tools that make up the environment of today’s undergraduate.

    I struggle all the time to both envigorate my classroom by engaging the students on their level, according to the way they interact with the world (which is increasingly high-tech), but at the same time to balance that with an effort to both focus and broaden their world. And standards of evaluation are really the best way to do that. But the key is that there is no formula for evaluation, no Ten Commandments of what constitutes valid work and what isn’t.

  5. Ira Socol said,

    I spend a great deal of my time writing fiction – , so I too count myself as a lover of words and language. The skills came late, and came via oral language because reading and writing were so difficult for me as a kid, but they came. So I want students to find the tools they need to help them get done what needs to be done. I’d rather a spell-checker (linked with knowledge of how to use grammar-checkers) then have them worrying about that – because I want their focus on communication. I’d rather they soar into the fascinating world of math than learn to hate arithmetic. I’d rather they read however it is easiest (digital books, audio books) because I want them to read as much as they can.

    But no, there’s no great guide to effective assessment. Because I have a background that includes police work, art school, and architecture school (yes, I’m strange), I have a strong sense of the power of authentic assessments, but they all require small classes and significant teacher-student relationships. Absent those (30 students in an introductory class?) what to do, indeed.

  6. ndsmith said,

    Thanks for the interaction, Ira. I myself am fairly new to the world of blogging and must say that our conversation has been a warm welcome.

    If you are following this thread, you too are probably an educator, in which case I highly recommend Ira’s blog also linked above under “blogs I read.” You may have picked it up from the current thread, but Ira’s an active participant in the world of technology assisted education, or UDL tech, as he calls it. What Ira points out, which is so critical for educators, is that we have to be a little bit creative, we have to be proactive and we have to be sensitive to the real needs of our students rather than holding fast to certain “age-old principles” of education. The “problem” of the internet and “cheating” is just one of the many ways we can miss a good opportunity to teach by holding onto the rigid standards of our predecessors.

    Which is precisely why I call the cheating moralism a “taboo.” You know, Freud believed that taboos emerged into the world of human interaction as we held fast to the symbolic prescriptions of the previous generation, our fathers, our teachers, our teachers’ teachers and fathers’ fathers. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with symbols and moral guidelines. But they do not operate in our decision making in a straightforward way, so we have to be critical about our own motivations when we appeal to those symbols or “obvious” moral standards.

    Echoing above: educators who care about real assessment, real evaluation, and real learning are in a fight against time, resources, and a culture of education and learning that doesn’t promote the kind of individually motivated student performance and conscientious instructor evaluation that is necessary for real learning.

  7. antihebe said,

    I’m no educator – I’m a fifteen-year-old student, so forgive my inarticulacy! Literacy rates in my school are terrifying, with most year 12s unable to do something as simple as read aloud. And I think that this is partly to do with modern technology, which is used to the extent that it seems to distance young people from the natural formation of linguistic, cognitive and even social constructions.

    Don’t get me wrong. The Internet in particular is an incredibly valuable resource. It does make ideas more accessible, it does aid people with issues such as learning disablities, and to some extent it does transcend traditional class- and gender-based divides. But I still think that in general it should be used as supplementary to more traditional learning. For myself researching on the Internet is an inherently more passive experience than the old pen-and-paper method.

    Which is not to say that I advocate a return to the bad old days of rote learning: education should be stimulating, and children should intellectually be as actively involved as possible. Certain skills need to be taught, such as discernment, as somebody said – but there is then no reason why these skills shouldn’t be extended with technological application. The exact context (e.g., a test, not test) should not be relevant. If people are taught to use the Internet intelligently, than it can in nature only be an enhancement of the learning process.

    I guess what I’m struggling to say is that I’m all for this kind of technology: but youth culture is in danger of becoming far too dependent on it…

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