Archived entries for ethics

Cheating or Sharing? Collaborations in the
Digital Age, Part II

Before we run to condem the Harvard students implicated in a large-scale cheating scandal, consider the following from  an interview with one of the students in the Boston Globe today:

 Yes, he had shared notes with friends in the course. But the instructions on the exam said students should consider it “completely open book, open note, open Internet, etc.” The professor had encouraged students to collaborate in their other course work. So even though the exam also included the admonition that “students may not discuss the exam with others — this includes resident tutors, writing centers, etc.,” the student said he figured it would be safe to swap a few ideas…all of those interviewed by the Globe — who requested anonymity because they feared the consequences of going public while their cases are pending — said the ground rules for both the test and the class at large were so unclear that they did not realize they were cheating.

Reactions from professors include hand-wringing about “young people today,” renewed calls for an honors code or in-class finals.  The hand-wringing is understandable, and also a time-honored tradition in the battle between generations, i.e. “Look at those darned kids ________ [reading penny novels, cutting their hair short, growing their hair long, planking, etc..],” as if the current crop of young people do not fit into established society and deliberately flout its rules. As for this and the honor code suggestion, it appears from student comments that after a semester of open book collaboration, they innocently misinterpreted the exam instructions.

It might well be that these are the collective protestations of culprits caught in the act.  But consider the following:

The accused students said the final was no different than the other three scored assignments in the course. All were take-home exams accounting for 25 percent each of students’ ultimate letter grades. All carried the same instructions, complete with “et ceteras” — and collaboration was common on all of them, according to the students who spoke to the Globe.

Harvard does not appear to be investigating the earlier three exams.

Is the in-classroom exam the solution?  Maybe the answer lies somewhere else. Have students divide into teams, maybe, and within the team assign one section of the exam to a student? Construct an exam more like a puzzle in that students need to actively research, identify and synthesize different chunks of information?  I’m not sure.  But I do think that solutions will be harder to find if you think that the students are the problem.

Cheating or Sharing? Collaborations in
the Digital Age, Part I

This story outlining an alleged large-scale cheating scandal at Harvard hit the virtual newsstands this afternoon.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not pro-cheating.  But to insist that the solution is to ” bolster its efforts to prevent cheating by better educating students on academic ethics” is naive at best and unproductive at worst. I’m not sure that this is really about ethics, about looking to “shame” students into a particular behavior.  More about ethics later.

A collaborator who teaches at a public university told me that her students, weaned on free and easy content on the Web, honestly do not understand that cutting and pasting online content constitutes cheating.  I can understand how someone who has spent their her life appropriating images, music, and text online, someone who has perhaps posted their own programming and designs to the MIT Scratch community site or added their artwork to Deviant Art‘s collections might be confused to learn that certain types of content cannot be shared.  Fair use and intellectual property are difficult concepts to parse for most of us.

Educating students as to what they are able to appropriate and share continues to be one of the major challenges of When I first read the story, I was both disappointed in the students’ behavior — and impressed with their organizational and collaborative savvy as they split into groups and divided up tasks amongst themselves, their smart use of media to share what they’d found, their sense of collaboration and teamwork. Ironically, that is how work is typically accomplished in modern Western societies today.  We would do well to develop some type of assessment that allows, even encourages, this type of work.


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