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Archive for March, 2012

Is Online Cheating Accelerating?

March 29, 2012 1 comment

Grad student teams in my Design of Online Communities class handed in super qualitative studies of seven online sites this term.  Grading the papers, I couldn’t help notice that three of the seven sites were fundamentally wrestling with issues of student cheating online. On OpenStudy and StackOverflow, students regularly post their homework questions and wait for others to answer. Neither site is quite sure what to do about the problem.  Answering questions is essential to their mission. How do you distinguish between getting legitimate help and outsourcing your work?

A team of students from Korea studied a site called GoHackers, which Korean students use to help with test preparation for study-abroad tests like the GRE and the TOEFL. The electronic version of the tests generally reuse questions from a pool. If each test taker remembers one test question, together students can quickly build a comprehensive database.   One interview subject had posted a particularly thorough test guide online, and another student asked him for his autograph. Our student researchers explicitly asked site members whether they had any ethical or legal qualms about the test prep site, and no one they interviewed was concerned at all. 

Of course it’s a coincidence that three of seven papers touched on this theme this term. And cheating is not a new phenomenon–far from it. But what is in fact new is the ease by which it can be accomplished.  It’s not simply a little easier–it’s a lot easier, and that is leading to a different magnitude and type of issue.

if there’s a silver lining, it’s that this trend may challenge us teachers to rethink our practices–to rethink what makes a good assignment or test.  To rethink what the purposes  of “homework” and “test’ are anyway and how those goals can better be met, perhaps with more authentic and contextual activities. And to pay more attention to ethics education and meta-cognitive awareness in our students: making sure we make it clear to students why they are doing what they are doing for school.

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Free Speech As It Is, As it Should Be

March 27, 2012 2 comments

“There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.” — Linus van Pelt

As a teacher, I often ponder what sort of advice to give students on the continuum from accepting the world as it is (and being appropriately cautious) to working to make it better. The current controversy over hooded sweatshirts and the death of Trayvon Martin brings this to mind. If you were teacher or parent to a young African American man, would you advise him to avoid hoodies (it’s not safe), or wear them proudly (it should be safe)?  Or get everyone to wear them, and start a new political movement?

I’m glad I don’t have to advise young African American men on clothing choices–I have no idea what I’d say.  But the more I think about it, the more this continuum–from the world as it is to the world as it should be–pervades life.  Where I do advise students is in the area of their self presentation and exercise of free speech online.

Viewing the world as it is, I caution students to be careful. Potential employers are increasingly checking up on job candidates online. People are being fired for exercising their free speech rights at home in their free time.  And how you feel about issues now may not be how you feel about them in the future, but your past statements will follow you.  Be careful. You’ve worked hard to get where you are, and you don’t want to jeopardize your position.

Viewing the world as it should be, I believe  in everyone’s right not just to controversial speech but to offensive speech.  How can our culture make any progress if we are all silent about issues that matter? Where is our tolerance for differing views? The internet is potentially the greatest tool ever invented in the service of democracy, so for goodness sakes let’s use it! 

I suppose I could create a pseudoymous persona to express political views separate from my real identity, but I shouldn’t have to. Statements have more weight when they come from a real person. I speak to you as a citizen of the City of Atlanta, Fulton County, the State of Georgia, and the United States of America. I vote, and this is what I think. 

I tend to err on the side of caution in giving advice to my students.  I’m much more likely to say, “the world is scary–be careful” than say “you can change the world–go for it!”  I suppose world changers at minimum need to understand the risks they take.  The research question I’d like to address is how we can re-engineer the system to reduce those risks, and make richer kinds of public political discourse possible, even for cautious souls like me.

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