High-tech cheating? Students see it differently

A recent report commissioned by Common Sense Media about the use of cell phones and the internet for cheating (see story) is representative of how students and adults can look at the same behavior or activity and have very different perceptions of technology’s impact.

With the exponential increase in students’ access to cell phones, and their access to a wide range of digital content via the internet, the effective use of these technology tools has become a key topic in many education discussions. Yet the question of how to leverage technology’s potential to transform teaching and learning is still largely unresolved. And while there are “campfires” of innovation and implementations with promising results, there continues to exist a wide digital disconnect between how students want to use these tools for learning and living, and how the adults in their learning worlds think these tools should be used.

As observed in the latest results of our national Speak Up survey (see “What do students want from their schools?”), our nation’s students largely still power down when they go to school and power back up as they leave the school grounds to resume their digital lives. Students’ widespread dissatisfaction with the availability of technology while they are at school stands in stark contrast to the stated values of their school administrators and teachers, with 85 percent of administrators and 70 percent of teachers saying effective ed-tech implementation is important to their school’s core mission.

At the root of this digital disconnect is a fundamental difference of perception. Our students, who are not only digitally native, but increasingly mobile, view the world through a new lens that has been framed by a myriad of emerging technology devices and the use of such tools for increased communication, collaboration, content development, and connectedness. Their parents, teachers, and many other digital “immigrants” in education policy and media spheres are startled by the speed with which students are not only adopting these new tools, but adapting them to new, previously unforeseen uses. And quite often, the context of this adaptation is misunderstood by the adults whose lenses are not quite as digitally focused.

Over the past six years, Project Tomorrow, a national nonprofit organization, has collected and reported on the views of more than 1.5 million K-12 students, teachers, parents, and administrators about their use of technology, the values they place on technology use, and their aspirations for improving learning with the help of technology. As a result, we have learned three essential truths in polling youth about technology: context matters, perspective matters even more, and–overall–this is very tricky business.

To enlighten the analysis and extend the conversation started by Common Sense Media, I will tap into our Speak Up survey results to share the point of view of students and to demonstrate the absolute criticality of understanding both context and perspective in this discussion.

At the heart of the Common Sense Media report, “Hi-Tech Cheating: Cell Phones and Cheating in Schools,” is the belief that “versatile technologies have made cheating easier.” The report cites as an example that 20 percent of cell phone users ages 13-18 say they have “always/often/sometimes/rarely” used their cell phone to search the internet for answers during a quiz or test, 17 percent have taken photos of test questions to send to friends, 25 percent have texted a friend about answers, and 25 percent have stored notes or information on their phone to look at during tests.

While it is unclear from the data how many of those students admitted to doing these activities “often,” it can be implied that a strong 75 percent to 83 percent of the students did not chose any of the cheating activities as behaviors they have personally done. And a solid 79 percent indicated they viewed such activities as cheating.

What’s more, only 11 percent of the students in the poll chose the option “no” when asked if they believed these kinds of cell-phone activities were wrong. This, however, was not the headline from the report, which chose to focus on widespread cheating with cell phones. Today’s youth are confronted almost daily with new examples of how our titans of business and industry, sports heroes, government leaders, and celebrities cheat to get ahead for personal gain. This tacit acceptance of cheating in our culture is not limited to those in the news. A 2006 study noted that 33 percent of Americans said they would cheat the government by working under the table while receiving unemployment benefits. And while that 11-percent figure from the Common Sense Media report is not an acceptable number, considering the pervasiveness of cheating in our society, parents and teachers must already be doing a good job teaching about appropriate and responsible use of these versatile technology tools.

The Common Sense Media report also provided data on students’ inappropriate use of digital content from the internet–such as turning in assignments that included copied text or actual papers or reports as original work. As noted with the cell phone value statements, a vast majority of the students in the Common Sense Media poll considered all of the identified inappropriate digital content behaviors as offenses. Only a small percentage of the students indicated explicitly that copying text from web sites (14 percent) or downloading a paper to turn in as your own (11 percent) were not offenses.

Putting aside the frequency of technology-enabled cheating in schools, perhaps a more meaningful question raised by the report is whether we are assessing the right skills in our nation’s classrooms–and whether our concept of “cheating” is no longer appropriate for today’s students. According to the definition of cheating as described in the report, the contestants in the popular game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” cheat every time they “phone a friend” for help on a tough question. Most likely, those calls are even being made on a cell phone!

The proliferation of digital content within schools is creating new paradigms for teaching and learning, and also new challenges for evaluating academic integrity. Increasingly, students are telling us that the process of creating content themselves as a representation of knowledge acquisition is often more important than the mere recitation of information and facts. Many of the points made in the Common Sense Media report reflect a bygone era when students were empty vessels the teacher would fill with pertinent information. “Pencils down” style tests were well suited for assessing the effectiveness of the teacher in filling those empty vessels. Today, with 30 percent of high school students saying that tests do not effectively measure what they know, and only 39 percent of students saying their high school is doing a good job preparing them for the jobs of the future, a more relevant topic of conversation would be how to leverage digital content more effectively for learning–and what constitutes a meaningful assessment of knowledge acquisition in this new digital era. 

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