Fixing Psychology

The once and future behaviorism.

Cheating: It Just Got Much Easier, and Much Harder

150 Harvard students give us a reason to rethink student conduct policy.

Fascinating things to think about in a just-released Chronicle article about cheating at Harvard: http://chronicle.com/article/Harvard-Cheating-Scandal/134160 

Basically, it is suspected that a bunch of students violated policy by collaborating on a take home, open book, open notes, open internet exam. I'm not so much interested in the details of the case (it was a class in which students were encouraged to collaborate in groups across the semester, but then told to do the exam alone, but there is a grey are where you talk to people a little... but not too much... etc.). Instead, I want to think for a bit about the implications of the "open internet" clause in a "web 2.0" world. Here is the rub: Anything another student posts on the internet is now, by definition, openly available. This has profound implication for how we think about and evaluate cheating on out-of-class assignments, perhaps even undermining our standard criterion for cases when the internet is not allowed! It is almost as bad as the case in Roy Sorenson's insightful essay about what can happen when a professor gives "Permission to Cheat." Why does this such a mess, well:

How did the old system work?

In the old system, doing certain types of things was allowed and doing other types of things was not allowed. What types of things were allowed? Consulting books and articles. What types of things were disallowed? Phone calls and live conversations with other people working on the problem. But... these rules were made in an age where the mode of information-seeking corresponded nicely with the type of source that would be thereby consulted. For example, I doubt most physics professors would have objected to a phone call or in-person discussion, if the student were thereby gaining new information from Stephen Hawking, nor would a biology professor have objected to consulting Stephen J. Gould regarding evolution... so long as the student properly cited the personal conversation as a source. In general, on the "old" internet, consulting a website might often be frowned upon, or considered a lower category of source, but if it was an article pulled from Hawking or Gould's website vs. Wikipedia vs. a random person or organization's website, then this is a simple issue of judging the reliability of the source and citing it properly.

What's changed?

Three important things: 1) On demand publishing. 2) Tons of students have webpages. 3) In "Web 2.0" most of what is "on the internet" is not webpages.

How does this change things?

I think the easiest way to explain the change is to make an unrealistic claim about the importance of on-demand publishing, then transition to talk about the new internet. Let's face it, one reason books were traditionally considered good sources is that not anyone could print a book. Today it is relatively trivial for any student to write their paper and get it published - with an imprint label, copyright, and date - in book form. If we really allowed "any book" then ever frat house in the country is well within their write to take their storehouse of past papers, bind it, put it on Amazon, and have anyone who wants download and use it. Crazy sounding, if only because of the effort involved. On the other hand, when you are allowed to use the internet, it is all suddenly pretty easy.
Set up a frat website, have people deposit their papers there, use them as an honest web resource.

That's still pretty old fashioned though. Why not, as my college is doing, encourage every student to have a blog? Then if students want to blog about their paper ideas and paper progress it is a good thing, right? You know, because it makes us seem more serious academically, and creates the right atmosphere of intellectualism on campus through links from the main webpage. (I mean that part seriously.) But wait... what if the student is blogging about a paper, and another student working on the same paper looks at their post and takes inspiration from it? Is that a web resource or illegal collaboration?!? So far as I can tell, if my blog would count as a legal source (which of course it should....), then why wouldn't a students blog---Both are equally "on the internet", and you are allowed to use the internet!

Well crap. Now there is a real dilemma, because there is no sense in which the ways students can interact on the web is different from the way students could interact if working together in person. (Yes, there are ways that they can interact in person that are different... but presumably no ways relevant to their assignment ;- ) So... if students are allowed to use the web, there is no reason they shouldn't be allowed to work together in person. The distinction no longer makes any sense. And... as established earlier, if we forced them to rely only on printed material, it is now a mere formality to do all the same sorts of interaction passing quickly printed booklets back and froth.

Of course, there is still the matter of judging the validity of sources, and the matter of citing influences, but those are plagiarism problems, not cheating problems writ large.

What to do?!?

Well, an obvious solution would be not to give take home assignments, but that is not practical. Take home assignments have virtues. For people who want the virtues of take home assignments there needs to be a good discussion to figure out how better to specify allowed and disallowed activities. The old distinctions over which types of media a student is interacting with will simply no longer do.

 

Cross Posted on FixingPsychology.blogspot.com

Eric Charles, Ph.D., runs the research lab at CTRL, the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning, at American University.

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