Posted by: elightkeeper | December 8, 2010

Learning To Cheat, Cheating Learning

In my years as a student, as a teacher and as an administrator, I’ve pretty much seen it all when it comes to cheating.

Most of us can recall a high school experience where a kid peeking sideways at someone’s exam paper became an unfortunate example for the rest of the class. Back in the day, one stray glance led to banishment and a consequence just short of a jail term.

Some of us likely have a cheating story or two that stand out from the rest. During my undergraduate days at university, one clever chap wired an antenna into a fake arm cast during Christmas exams and had answers transmitted to him by earphone from his buddy outside. It was ingenious, I’ll give him that. It was also not effective technology for the job and he was expelled.  No doubt, the time spent engineering a cheating device would have been better spent studying for the exam. Or would it have?

In the online world and the modern classroom, incidents of cheating still occur. The easy ones to catch are the those who try to use a classmate’s earlier work, or draw heavily from an internet site without realizing that “cut and paste” translates into plagiarism. The tools may have changed from crib sheet to secret file, but the behavior and intent of cheaters has remained fairly consistent over the years.

Using online resources like Turnitin and Google, we have the ability to check content for originality in student work.  In addition, we will catch the student who submits a paper and forgets to take his friend’s name off the original document. We will also catch the student who provides brilliant responses to assignment questions, but fails to notice the questions on her version of the paper have been reordered. Nonetheless, cases like this are not common.  These acts of academic dishonesty can become teachable moments, where a student makes a poor decision and the educator has an opportunity to influence the student and uncover what led to the desperate gesture.

Contrary to popular myth, cheating is not on the rise due to the pervasiveness of technology.  Granted, technology makes networking for any purpose easier. (Need an essay? We have an app for that.) Information of all types can be shared, bartered, sold and stolen. But it is educational practice that is at the root of cheating. That is where we must turn our attention and not fall into blaming technology for our systemic shortcomings.

Peter Gray is the author of the Freedom to Learn blog. In a recent post called Cheating in Science, he writes that “school is a breeding ground for cheaters”, and “cheating is most frequent among the ‘best’ students today.”  The evidence I have seen indicates he is right about this.

The majority of students who are caught cheating these days are very good students. Some of them are under extraordinary pressure to get good grades and get into university. Some are wickedly overloaded with work and commitments, taking a course load that students in previous years would never have considered. Some are very bright, but speak English as a second language and are struggling to meet the written requirements of the language. Some are defiant and see no purpose or relevance in what they are being asked to do. And finally, some see coursework as hoops they need to go through to reach a post-secondary goal, and they have the purchasing power to simply pay someone else to do their work.

The truth is it is almost impossible to detect cheating on any work that is done outside of the classroom, whether virtual, face-to-face, high school or university.  If a student is shrewd enough to ensure that the work is convincing and consistent with their own, and if they are capable of comprehending what is required to orchestrate the process, they will likely get away with it.  So why then do we continue to load on content-based assignments and homework? Why do we continue to require students to memorize, regurgitate and replicate information on exams? Are we, in fact, inadvertently encouraging cheating?

It is a systemic problem. A knee-jerk reaction in the virtual world would be to insist on more face-to-face requirements and formal exams, so that authenticity of student work can be ensured. While this seems to be the only answer when accountability is paramount in a model based on grades and measurable outcomes, the real answer lies in an entirely different direction.

The promise of personalized learning lies not only in how it can enrich and empower  learning experiences, but also in what it can eradicate from the current content-driven, goal-oriented model. We have the opportunity to make changes to ensure that authentic demonstrations of student learning become adopted in education. We can stop cheating students out of a meaningful education by teaching them to create their own learning. Imagine that.  And please feel free to copy.

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