Now that I am beginning to understand the role of ‘face saving’ in education, I am starting to see it everywhere. In Betsy DiSalvo’s research on the Glitch Game Testers, she found that teenagers will try harder at academic work if they have a socially acceptable excuse for caring. Trying hard to learn computer science isn’t cool. But trying hard to win a weekly competition to get a video game? That is cool. And over time our participants were more and more willing to admit they cared about learning about technology. But they needed a comfortable excuse to get started.
I saw another example of this yesterday. The son of an acquaintance is a gifted two-sport athlete who has been scouted by professional teams in baseball. I’ll call him Joe. Joe is equally gifted at what Herbert Kohl would call deliberate not learning. He’s a smart kid, but goes to great lengths to not try in school at all. He refused to show up for his ACT college entrance exam last spring because he said he wasn’t going to go to college–hadn’t that baseball scout given him a team uniform and told him they were keeping an eye on him? His parents pleaded with him that perhaps a college scholarship to play baseball might be a good Plan B, just in case the pros don’t really call? He was adamant. Until over the summer he went to a church youth retreat, and was inspired. He told his mother that he had been making baseball his god, but from now on he wanted to pay more attention to the real God. He was tired of missing church for weekend baseball tournaments, so he quit his team. He will play on his high school’s team, but not on his all-consuming travel baseball team. And he started trying hard in school and getting good grades. Quite the transformation.
Now some people will see divine power in his transformation. But whether or not you believe that explanation, I think something else is also going on: face saving. For a kid who had deliberately not applied himself in school for a long time, consider this option:
- Joe admits to himself and his family that he was wrong to not try in school, and now he’ll apply himself.
That sounds hard, doesn’t it? He has to eat a lot of humble pie to go that route. But consider this next option:
- Joe rediscovers his faith, and recommits himself to excel in school as part of his inspiration by a higher power.
The second sounds easier, doesn’t it? Whether you believe in divine inspiration or not, there’s clearly some powerful face saving going on in the process of becoming born again. You can change your ways in a fashion that is more comfortable for your ego.
Most of us can remember someone in high school who bragged about not studying for a test. That’s a form of self protection. If you don’t try, then failure won’t reflect badly on you. If you try, then you risk finding out that you failed. If you don’t try, then at worst you can say “Oh yeah, I didn’t study. That stuff is lame.” It’s pre-emptive face saving. Could we redesign the educational system so that trying feels safer?
One of the interesting results from DiSalvo’s work is that you can deliberately design face saving opportunities into educational environments. It’s a powerful technique we’re just beginning to learn to leverage.
A colleague recently found this gem: http://www.wetakeyourclass.com/
As far as I can tell, this is real. It was not made by The Onion. There are all kinds of ways to cheat in classes–face to face ones as well as online. But online takes this to new levels. I remember the first time I explored Mechanical Turk, Amazon’s site that lets you pay humans to do small tasks. Most of the tasks I could find were for a few cents. But one stood out: it was $3. I clicked on it. It asked you to write a five paragraph essay: The first paragraph is the introduction, then three paragraphs with supporting facts, and a one paragraph conclusion. Each paragraph should have five sentences: an introduction, three supporting facts, and a conclusion. Is this sounding familiar to anyone? Some intrepid middle school student was trying hire someone to write their essay! It starts young.
Here’s a simpler approach for how to cheat in free online classes: you can simply register for the class more than once. Get to see the test in account one, and take it for real on account two. OK, so we can counter that in a few ways. We could check to see if two people are coming from the same computer. OK, then the cheater could just use two different computers or a proxy server. We could rotate the questions. But teams of students in developing countries already game the GRE and other admissions exams by creating large databanks of actual questions to study. If each student memorizes just one question, a complete databank can be built up in short order. Here’s another challenge: When a test is given, how do we know that the person sitting to take it is really the student? Well, what if we invest in some kind of biometric–check your fingerprint before you take the test? So then we might know the person is really there but how do we know a friend isn’t dictating over their shoulder?
Here’s my conjecture: For any given cheating technique, we can come up with a deterrent. And then the intrepid cheaters will come up with a new technique. It’s an arms race that will never end.
Does this all matter? It already matters a great deal for the integrity of high-stakes college and graduate admissions tests. For casual online courses that are for enrichment, it matters little. But as we use online classes for more important roles in accredited programs or sell the names of top students in those classes to head hunters, the arms race is going to matter more and drain resources. Is Academic Integrity Engineer the new hot job description?
I have heard one report that wetakeyourclass is a scam–they steal your money! Or is it parody? Either way, it’s thought provoking.