Crowdsourcing, collaborative learning or cheating?

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a handy approach to finding the answers
a handy approach to finding the answers

Challenges for educators in the Internet age

Wherever there are rules, there are almost inevitably people looking to break them, especially where a compelling incentive exists for those willing to risk getting caught. When I was a classroom teacher in Czechoslovakia and the United States, I often found that some of the most 'innovative' practices I witnessed over the course of a school year fell under the heading of what I (and the school) considered 'cheating'.

Before the recent tragic events there, the education establishment in Japan was transfixed earlier this year by a cheating scandal that highlights some of the challenges that the use of new technologies today pose for educators.

As in many other countries, university entrance examinations in Japan are high stakes affairs. In many cases, one's performance on these tests can be a large determinant in the course of a person's adult life, as the university you attend has traditionally played a critical role in a person's subsequent employment opportunities (and sometimes even choice of potential spouses!).

In this particular case, a student is alleged to have used a mobile phone to have questions from the exam posted to one of the many web sites that provide online forums for people to get answers to their queries on virtually any topic. Anonymous strangers (presumably not knowing that these were actually from a university entrance exam that was in progress!) then offered their help in answering the posted queries. Fortunately for the authorities -- and unfortunately for the alleged perpetrator -- given that all this was posted on the Internet, the evidence could not be so easily wiped away. Someone with knowledge of what was on the test just had to find it -- which someone eventually did.

The fact that a test taker appears to have used his mobile phone and the Internet to cheat is, in and of itself, perhaps not too surprising. The fact that many kids are (generally speaking) more adept at using computers than most adults are is considered conventional wisdom is most places, and we shouldn't be surprised that some students are able to exploit this basic asymmetry to cheat.

Wherever computers and the Internet are introduced into schools for the first time -- whether this in a suburban Canadian school in the 1990s or a rural school in South Asia in the 2010s -- run-of-the-mill 'copy-paste plagiarism' invariably sky rockets, and other, more inventive ways to cheat are subsequently discovered and put to use by students (a process enabled by the willingness of some to freely share their related 'expertise' via the Internet.) This is an issue that, in my experience working with education officials in high, middle and low income countries alike -- and almost without exception -- grows in importance over time as a preoccupation of policymakers charged with oversight of ICT/education issues within education systems.

In OECD countries, technical solutions to combat this sort of thing are increasingly in widespread use. Subscription services like offer schools an easy way to submit student work electronically to centralized databases; passages from the uploaded student work are then automatically checked for language that seems suspiciously similar.

Side note: About a decade ago, I talked with administrators at a very well known private international high school in Asia that had introduced an automated plagiarism detection service. These folks found themselves in a real quandary: Over 95%(!) of their students were found to have violated the school's honor code related to cheating, and according to school rules, the mandated punishment for the type of cheating that was detected was automatic expulsion. There was no practical way that this mass expulsion could occur, for reasons practical (there was simply not enough room at the school for the students to repeat the grade), political (students were from very prominent local families) and economic (the reputational hit that this school would have taken may have had disastrous consequences for the school's ability to continue to operate -- which is why I have not named it here), so the school had to break its own rules and devise an elaborate compromise solution. Suffice it to say, it wasn't only the students who learned a valuable lesson in this case!

One way around such anti-plagiarism tools is for students to commission original work themselves -- a practice that the Internet makes quite easy, whether you are studying in the UK, Australia or points in between. Numerous sites exist for this purpose (I won't give any of these services the benefit of a direct link here, despite the large amount of comment spam they regularly submit to this blog, but you should be able to find them pretty quickly using Google).

Copying an answer, or having someone else do your work for you -- I expect you would find few people who would consider this acceptable student behavior.

And yet ...

In an age where the 'outsourcing' of certain jobs and tasks is considered normal business practice, how should we feel about students who, for example, contract out their homework to well educated online 'tutors' based in places like India, Pakistan and Egypt? After all, in the corporate world, the initiative and management skills required to do this are lauded, and one of the primary rationales advanced in support of the widespread introduction of ICTs in school is that this will lead to the development of various sorts of skills valued in the workplace.

Last year, my boss had an urgent request for information to which I didn't know the answer, so I 'crowdsourced' it. I posted a question on Twitter, and within 30 minutes had three very good 'answers', all of which I quickly forwarded on. The fact that I was able to deliver in such a short amount of time certainly earned me points with my boss - who was later doubly impressed with my 'creative thinking' when I explained how I had actually come up with these answers in the first place.

While the context of my use of Twitter in this regard and the alleged use by the student sitting for his university entrance examination cited above are obviously quite different, the skill set and sensibility (if not the intent) behind both acts are fundamentally the same.

My point here is not to condone in any what what this particular student is alleged to have done in this case (based on news reports, he appears to have known what he was did was against the rules, and presumably felt that this was also wrong -- as is the case with young people in many other places who have engaged in similar actions). Nor is it to offer excuses for lazy kids in OECD countries who can afford to pay others to do their work for them.

It is rather to highlight some of the tensions that the introduction of new technologies into schools and broader society are having, challenging educators -- and in some ways, perhaps also some our larger views of what 'education' is meant to be.

In an age where computers and the Internet are in increasingly widespread use, it is easier than ever for students to 'cheat' -- and to get caught. The technological arms race in this regard between the policed and the police will continue to accelerate in schools, as it does in other areas in wider society.

In the particular case in Japan, one would expect that, at a minimum, mobile phones will be banned from examination areas (as they are, for example, in Korea). Viewed from one perspective, this would be a prudent, simple, overdue technical solution to a technical problem.

But there is a larger challenge here for education systems.

It is often noted that, if you transplanted a doctor from 100 years ago into a modern hospital, she would not recognize many of the practices and equipment in her new surroundings. Transplant a teacher from 1911 into a classroom today, however, and she would probably feel right at home, as little has actually fundamentally changed in the way that formal education is delivered in most places. The main difference, of course, is in the availability, use and impact of technology. As societies increasingly become saturated with new information and communication technologies, schools will slowly follow suit -- whether as a result of the actions and decisions of visionary leaders and educators, or because this is a wave that schools can only defend against for so long, the end result is essential the same, perhaps calling into question many current practices and beliefs:

  • Where answers to simple questions are just a click or two (or web search result) away, what role should memorization of various facts play in the classroom?
  • Where teamwork and collaboration skills are increasingly valued by many employers, and where the ability to introduce 'innovations' into business practices enabled through the creative use of new technologies is often what helps celebrate the winners from the losers in the business world, how should we evaluate our goals for the use of 'innovative' technologies in schools?
  • What practices should we permit and which should we punish, which should we 'correct' and which should we celebrate?

By changing the 'art of the possible', the introduction of a variety of computer-related tools into the hands of students is forcing educators and education systems to consider, and re-consider, their answers to these questions, whether they like it or not.

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post ("a handy approach to finding the answers") comes courtesy of Hariadhi via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Some of the links referenced above come courtesy of the very useful set of resources maintained by Trinity University's Bob Jensen.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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