September 14, 2012

Swimming with the Technology Tide

#youth #technology #internet #education

In these early weeks of the academic year, students are preparing to submit their first assignments, if they have not done so already. Educators have gone over the ground rules for ethical student behavior. They have explained what constitutes plagiarism, emphasized the importance of not cheating on tests, and made their own plans to use various technologies to facilitate spotting those who do not heed their guidelines. What could possibly go wrong?

One of the perils of the Internet age seems to be the ease with which it facilitates unauthorized “borrowing” of content for use in students’ work.  The subject of technology and cheating is unlikely to disappear. One recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education indicated that increased incorporation of Internet technology into courses, for example online test-taking, is giving birth to ever evolving student ingenuity when it comes to academic dishonesty (see article here) .

So what’s an educator to do? That is the question that continually ran through my mind while teaching last year. One student composed a response to the take-home exam entirely copied from Wikipedia. You heard me, there was no sentence not lifted from that useful source, despite my explicit instructions regarding how to go about doing the exam. It was morbidly fascinating actually, given that the sentences themselves came from different articles AND in many cases were deftly assembled to form paragraphs. I wondered whether for use of time alone she would have spent fewer minutes reading the text and answering the question from scratch! That student was not the last offender for the semester either.

Then there was less obviously egregious flouting of my guidelines for the course, where I gave my students a preliminary assignment for the research paper to submit a very brief prospectus of the topic they intended to tackle. Many, many of the eventual papers were on completely different topics than suggested in the initial assignments - most without my prior approval. Who knew that I needed to specify that this was not allowed? Not me; and because I did not say it from the beginning, I realized I had to let it go. I received at least two papers clearly submitted for another class (one without even an attempt to tweak it to fit our US to 1877 context!), and two others clearly resourced from paper mills (they were so terrible it hurt to read them!). And according to a paper mill writer (see article here) , I am sure I may have had other externally sourced papers submitted to me that I never detected were fraudulent.

This is a subject to which my mind returns frequently, musing over the problem, sure that it is bigger than just the availability of various technological routes to cheating on exams. Technology in education is here to stay, barring the advent of a post-apocalyptic world in which we return to doing homework with a quill pen by candlelight. Nostalgia for the old days is pointless and destructive. It presents with rose-colored lenses a view of the past that never was given the almost detention-camp rigor within which I sat examinations each semester during undergrad almost twenty years ago.

A few weeks ago I was listening to a radio program on the general issue of cheating (see transcript here). Dan Ariely, the guest, is a Duke professor and bestselling author. He has done extensive research on unethical behavior covered in his recent book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone - Especially Ourselves. I thought that he made some interesting points, eminently applicable to education’s perennial quandary of why it happens and what do about cheating.

Cheating within the education system (at whatever level), undermines the system as a whole and casts doubt on the validity of eventual educational qualifications awarded. In a time when educational reform is being considered in many countries and universities are being slammed for the quality, relevance, and applicability of the education they provide this is no small matter.

According to Ariely, the more distance between us and our actions, the easier it is for us to be dishonest. Everything about the Internet places distance between us and our actions, and between us and those who suffer from our actions. Hence my theory about things like identity theft by people who would otherwise not ever break into somebody’s home, or steal an old lady’s bag. But that is another story. Furthermore, most people think in terms of short term consequences, not the implications of their actions over the long-term. There is the belief that the end justifies the means. As such, simply creating harsher and more elaborate punishments without making the infraction more proximate in perpetrator’s minds will not reduce crime. And I hazard a guess it will not reduce cheating in education either. So again, is the prospect for reducing the incidence of cheating in education (and in the society as a whole) totally hopeless?

It would seem then that the answer is to create proximity between actions and consequences. In the moment that a student cheats, she must know that she is directly violating some guideline to which she should be held. Not some words that were thrown at her days or weeks before, often with a vague promise of repercussions that are often not elaborated.

Ariely found that when we have fuzzy rules and guidelines, we don’t know where we are. But when we have strict rules and guidelines, we keep them. One of his studies looked at the effect of classes on ethics on cheating. Students at different institutions were required to do a test. At MIT and Yale, they were required to sign the honor code immediately before doing the test, stating that they understood that the survey was being governed by the same. However, MIT and Yale have no actual honor codes, yet the result was that there was no cheating.

On the other hand, Princeton has a strong honor code, and freshmen are grounded in it via an intense crash course. Researchers waited two weeks after this strong honor code training to test the Princeton students. When they signed the honor code before doing the exam, they did not cheat; when they did not sign the honor code, they cheated. Getting them to sign just before was the key.

Somehow it seems that the key to dealing with cheating is to have students operate consistently with the understanding that whatever they do is governed by an “honor code” that prohibits that dishonest behavior. It might be untenable to have every assignment, every scrap of homework, or term paper be preceded by the signing of a physical statement. The key then has to be that this code of right conduct must be ingrained internally.

As Ariely’s research would show, intense courses on ethics alone can achieve little in and of themselves if students are not immediately confronted by ethical principles in situations in which they may be tempted to cheat. One wonders too about the effectiveness of some of these courses. I once sat through a lecture on Moral Leadership in which the purported moral leader indicated that we each have to decide for ourselves what is moral and ethical. Not that each of us would have deal with our own moral dilemmas. He was saying that each of us decides what the rules are. Clearly there are students who do not see certain kinds of cheating as wrong, like the one who felt it was acceptable to cheat on tests for a required course because it was outside of his major (see article here).  There must be universal values upon which we all agree—otherwise why would plagiarism and cheating on school tests still be seen as infractions? As C.S. Lewis (1898 - 1963) said, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”