Let’s talk about cheating

Paul Downey. Cheat Like an Artist, https://www.flickr.com/photos/psd/13914714006/Now on to interesting stuff.  An excerpt I tweeted this morning from a new book on digital education has fired my passion again on the subject of cheating and digital technologies.  The ‘cheating’ to which I’m primarily referring relates to assessment in educational contexts – exams, essays, research projects and so on.  But I think it also goes much further than that.  ‘Gaming the system’ is an act that has become a survival strategy in life.

Whether it be manifested in strategies for being awarded public funding, strategies for maximising profit in investments, tips for the best experiences of places and spaces that may also cut costs, illegal downloads of copyrighted materials, or just how-to tips for cooking, cleaning and DIY building, ‘gaming the system’ is a means to the best possible end for the individual in an environment which is already tilted in favour of those with the most access to opportunities.  I’m being very careful here, and not identifying politics or free market economics or even a class-based society as the source of this ’tilted environment’, because (for the most part) it doesn’t matter which, if any, are at fault.  What does matter is that in a ’tilted environment’ the motivation to cheat is based partly on an awareness of a ‘natural unfairness’ of the system.  Thus the act of cheating is a means of levelling the playing field, or at least providing the individual with nearly as many opportunities as the most favoured players in a system.

This form of cheating can, and probably should be considered unethical, as it means the needs/wants of a few are being placed above the needs of society as a whole. But here’s the thing: if a player in a system discovers a loophole in the normal function of that system, exploits it, and then shares their experiences publicly, they are paving the way for other players to address the imbalance in the system.  Further, if the player chooses a distributed network to share the exploit, then the identity of the original author is blurred, and there’s little, if any, reason to suggest that sharing these exploits is an act of pride.  Instead, it’s an act of revolution.  It disenfranchises those who were previously favoured and protected in the system, and it generates an environment which is more ‘fair’ for all players, rather than a privileged few.

Yes, alright, this isn’t news to many scholars of Marxism.  But it’s remarkable how there is still such moral outrage over acts of cheating, when the system itself cheats many players.

But let’s focus for a moment at the source of an enormous amount of discussion in education circles – cheating on tests, or as it’s usually described in education fora, ‘academic dishonesty’.

As a scrupulously honest student, I have probably been one of the most vociferous critics of academic dishonesty.  I worked damned hard at my studies and while I was never the most natural student, I felt an enormous degree of pride in every example of academic achievement.  But while I did work hard, I also created my own system of learning, indexing and accessing prior knowledge.  I even memorised whole essays to write for my English Literature exam for Year 12 – essays I had written myself, but which had achieved high marks in practice exams.  (For what it’s worth, I ended up getting the highest mark in my literature exam at high school, in spite of not being the best student during the year.  I attribute that mostly to memorising those essays.)

Everyone does this.  It’s what we’re taught from the earliest stages of education.  Indeed, we’re all shown how to use libraries, journals and resources in classrooms, and we read what has been written on any subject so as to understand more clearly how it has developed and what may lie ahead.  And the better we become at absorbing these skills for information access, the more favoured we become as players in the system of understanding a subject matter. As we advance in our learning, those absorbed and internalised systems of accessing knowledge, and applying it in new contexts, become ‘cheats’ to our own mastery of a subject.

So if someone in that system disrupts our own hard work in internalising those systems, and applies prior knowledge differently (say, by copying the answers from the back of the book on a test), it’s considered unfair, dishonest, immoral, unethical.  Or, at least, that’s how I felt when I found out that any of my fellow students had cheated on an exam.  And later, when I began to teach, I felt just as affronted that my teaching efforts were attempting to be circumvented by cheating students.

It wasn’t until some years into my teaching experience that the profoundly imperfect process of assessing student learning was really tested by technology. It was harder and harder to keep technology out of the exam room, as devices got smaller and more versatile.  The average calculator transformed into what was essentially a computer, with complex content able to be saved onto the device for access by students in the exam room.

Further, as technology has been more widely accepted into our daily lives, it seemed rather bizarre to exclude them from exam rooms.  Why shouldn’t students have access to the internet in the exam room?  If they could use search engines to find materials to research a subject, or support their argument, then the quality of what they produce will be enhanced.  And we’re not just testing their knowledge recall (lower level learning), we’re testing their ability to source materials on a subject, and the application and analysis of that knowledge in context (higher level learning).

And so, the notion of open book exams and internet-access exams began to be accepted.  It was considered more authentic assessment of learning.  After all, in what professional context is anyone ever called on to produce evidence of their learning without having a backup system in place to check that they are using the best methods and correct processes?

Yet still the moral panic over cheating prevailed. A question often posed was, “How do we know it’s actually the student who is doing the exam, and they’re not outsourcing this to someone outside the exam room?”.  By this stage in my teaching career, I must admit, I had become frustrated with the sort of people who asked those kinds of questions.  I was tempted to say – and occasionally did say – “well good luck to them; extra points for initiative”.  I wasn’t really being that cynical.  I meant that if a student wanted so much to cheat on an exam that they were prepared to sit for two hours in a room pretending to work, while they paid someone outside the exam room to complete a paper, then they were probably going to find a way around any system in any case.  In reality, the mechanism I used to minimise this behaviour was to reveal case-study based exam questions at least a week prior to all my exams, without revealing the actual case study, and then to provide a case study in the exam room on paper.  Any students who wished to employ someone to do the exam for them would have to scan in the case study, and wait for a response from their remote scholar – tough to achieve in full view of the invigilator.  But even in remote exams/assessment, the use of a context or case study to focus the attention of student so that he/she can demonstrate the application of their learning over a limited time period seems to me to be a more effective assessment technique than knowledge recall.

Further, plagiarism really isn’t as much of a problem as most academics will indicate.  If a teacher can’t identify a change to the language being used, then they’re not much of a scholar themselves.  I found it profoundly easy to spot in the work of my students.  And before anyone suggests that I only spotted it when it was done badly, I also tested the better essays by grabbing a few sentences of well-articulated points, and putting these through a plagiarism detection tool, as well as checking online for similar statements. Rarely, if ever, did an instance of cheating among the better students emerge.  It’s a product of their learning.  If they have ‘got away’ with plagiarism, they have done so by deconstructing the process of detection and using sophisticated techniques to retain their natural ‘voice’ while borrowing concepts of another.  But in so doing, we can’t ignore the fact that a certain amount of understanding from the work they have submitted must have been absorbed by the student.  They have perhaps learned, in spite of themselves.

And so the act of cheating is in almost all instances, a process of learning, a mechanism by which a system can be tested, a strategy for competitive advantage.  I believe we need to think differently about the concept of cheating.  We need to start thinking of it more in the manner of gamers, who create cheat sheets to improve experiences of games.  Or DIY nuts, who use sites like Instructables to find and share easy ways of making things, or optimising experiences.  Or investment advisers, who share tips on stock movements.  Or even content pirates, who copy and share content in order to expand the experience of a cultural product.

Of course there are degrees of cheating.  Robbing someone, or deliberately and personally attacking an individual or organisation, and depriving them of their comfort and freedom is still grossly unethical.  At no time and in no context could I ever condone such behaviour.

But I do think we need to think about what it is to cheat-to-learn, or cheat-to-live, particularly when the act of sharing that ‘cheat’ is a service to others.  Perhaps in sharing a ‘cheat’, we’re actually teaching.

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