Friday, July 09, 2010

Busting Perps

I have to admit enjoying this article a little too much.

Anyone who did time with Foucault will immediately think ‘panopticon’ when reading this piece about the anti-cheating technologies at the University of Central Florida. But I remember vividly the frustration as a teacher when students would cheat, and I remember the palpable sense of relief among the better students when I interrupted a cheat in progress.

At least for me, student cheating was a serious morale issue. It made me feel foolish for having poured so much energy into teaching when the students couldn’t even be bothered to try to learn. And I had good students tell me that faculty indifference to obvious cheating bugged them, because it made them feel like dupes for actually doing the work. When the ones who follow the rules feel like suckers, something is fundamentally wrong.

I served for several years on the academic dishonesty review board, which ‘tried’ cases in which students were accused of plagiarism or other cheating. (The majority of the board was faculty, but it needed a token admin.) Based on what I saw there, I have to admit a certain impatience with the idea that Gen Y doesn’t grasp the concept of plagiarism. Granted, things sometimes got murky on ‘group assignments,’ in which one member would coast on the labor of others, but the whole “copy my paper off the internet” thing wasn’t ambiguous. In those cases, when presented with the evidence, there wasn’t really much argument either way. Nobody even tried to argue that copy-and-paste was kosher.

I’ve heard arguments to the effect that in-class tests are artificial environments and not reflective of what students will encounter in the real world. There’s some truth to that, but there’s also a basic truth to the assertion that any environment will have rules of the game. Certain rules are necessary for the integrity of the game. And showing the ability to adapt to rules and work hard seems like it should carry some weight in the real world.

Policing cheating can be a real challenge with online classes, since you don’t know who’s sitting at the keyboard. (“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”) Anecdotally, the biggest threat there is usually the spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend. But that doesn’t strike me as an argument for giving up; it strikes me as an argument for cleverness.

Call it the broken windows theory of plagiarism. If it looks like nobody else cares, then following the rules can seem like selling out. But if you see people get nailed, and the flagrant cases lead to real punishments, then following the rules looks like a better deal.

This is where the “law and order” part of my “law and order liberalism” comes through. I define “law and order liberalism” as the simultaneous belief that laws should be both fair and enforced. Banning copy-and-paste papers strikes me as utterly fair, and therefore enforceable without apology. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.

So bravo, UCF! May you make “just doing the work” the easy way out.