Thursday, May 22, 2014

Big Thirsty: Academic honesty policies for cyborgs

What are we going to do when wearable computers (such as Google Glass) arrive?

Come on, kids, let's not pretend it isn't happening. An old friend from 9th grade who wasn't interested in school and kept telling me he'd be a truck driver when he grew up isn't handling they imminent arrival of driverless cars well. We academics are supare we going to do when wearable computers (such as Google Glass) arrive?
posed to be smarter than that, so we need to face it, preferably before it happens: what

At first they may be recognizable and hence we might be able to ban them from even large lecture classes, but once they are available as contact lenses (or eventually internal implants, too small to require surgery), that will be the end of that. These will certainly make traditional sit-down, in-class exams that largely test memorization obsolete, since it will become impossible to stop students from cheating on them by connecting to the Internet.

Come to think of it, this won't much change my physics classes, since even the large ones are examined by open-ended problem solving, and I allow students to use formula lists (you know, "cheat sheets") on those. It will change my large, general-ed intro-astronomy course for non-majors. I should perhaps have exams by one-page, in-class writing exercises, since we have several of those during the semester as homework.

These can actually be interesting, since there are many questions that lend themselves well to it. (For example, in 1-3 sentences that most 9-year-olds could understand, explain: Why is the sky blue? Don't just write "Rayleigh scattering," since most 9-year-olds couldn't understand that, aside from being two big, funny words. What do the big, funny words mean? Other examples are: How do we know that Earth is round? How do we know that atoms and molecules exist?)

On the other hand, there will be much more time-consuming to grade. Fucking great.

So, what are we going to do when wearable computers (such as Google Glass) arrive? Like it or not, they are coming.

Love and kisses (especially for Greta),
Froderick Frankenstien from Fresno


  1. For my (math) classes, I don't think it will make much of a difference. In upper-division classes my tests are open-book, open-notes. They might as well use the entire internet; it wouldn't matter, since the problems are original and test understanding. Even the intro classes have about 35 students, and it is easy to propose original problems on tests.

    Or rather, not entirely original: I repeat homework problems; these may be from a book, but the kind of book where you won't find posted solutions out there. So I don't let them access the homework solutions I post, and this would have to change. (All I have to do is change the question slightly, and most students are toast.)

    One thing that would change would be the possibility to access more competent human beings, in real time; low-paid graduate students or colleagues, for instance. For small classes one could always have interviews to confirm the grade. For large classes...there may be a technological solution, like having the tests in `safe rooms' with interference technology.

  2. "So, what are we going to do when wearable computers (such as Google Glass) arrive? Like it or not, they are coming."

    What do you mean by "we" kemosabe?

    1. Let's provisionally define "we" as the people who do most of the posting and commenting here, namely, people who teach at college level. You know, the people who are held responsible for college students' learning, even when the students so often utterly refuse to take any responsibility themselves.

  3. You know, Frod, it's just a matter of time before someone creates a website to answer those perennial "Why is the sky blue?" type questions.... You know, like those mythical fraternity test banks!

    I say, everyone buy wifi jammers and use them even if the U disallows it.

  4. Stomp on them!

    I would be less worried about students who surf the internet (that's on them, and they're doing that anyway with their phones) than the ones who would seek help from classmates and disrupt their learning or testing experience. Since my tests are essay-type questions, it's not like surfing online will help them a whole lot.

    Plus, I'm guessing that by the time this technology becomes readily available and affordable to everyone, they'll all be dumb as tree sap and I'll be happy to have them look up shit on the internet.

  5. Once a device is part of the body, using it is not cheating. Would you say that getting eye surgery to see better is cheating? You may say that surgery is not cheating if the organ itself was simply modified and no artificial device was inserted. However, surgery often does involve such devices. Would a pacemaker or hip replacement surgery count as cheating? Some people will choose not to get any artificial enhancements while others may choose to get them. However, should anybody get any artificial advantage, this is not any worse than becoming more attractive through plastic surgery. However a skill or some other personal trait was obtained, once it is part of the body, the fact is that the person has it in reality at a given moment.

    If implanted, a wearable computer is similar in concept to getting a memory card for the brain. If that ever became possible, the very notion of cheating would become obsolete even though not everybody would be able or willing to get this extra advantage.

    1. I don't follow your argument. Eyes are part of the body, and they have long been used for cheating, by looking at the exam papers of the next student. We teachers have long taken steps to prevent this, such as watching for it, and pointing it out by saying, "What, are you two DATING?" But of course, this can be spotted by an alert teacher and countermeasures can be taken. We need to start thinking about countermeasures for increasingly advances electronic devices.

    2. But one cannot ban eyes from exams or penalize students just for having them on their person whereas this is commonly done for external devices. What I'm saying is that once a device becomes part of the body, you will no longer be able to ban it or penalize a student just for having it.

      If a student is looking at another student's paper, you have to observe that happening and the supposed cheater may still deny it. After all, many people are looking around when they are thinking and trying to remember things. Sometimes the student denies it even when the teacher is quite sure. Now, how do you similarly detect what you may consider cheating when it involves a device integrated into the body? What would be considered cheating and how would you detect it? Would it even be visible at all? If you cannot see it with your own eyes, would it be possible, reasonable and legally permissible (and also permitted by the school's own rules) to detect it by using your own electronic device? Because you wouldn't be detecting some external device but something integrated into the student's body.

    3. Perhaps certain implantable devices cannot be banned from the exam room any more than could eyes with implanted lenses. However, if their use creates an inequitable situation that involves the fundamental educational function of the exercise, then we can ban and/or penalize the USE of the devices.

      If a device integrated into the student's body communicates with an entity outside the student's body via radio waves or other medium, then for a "closed book" exam it would not be invasive and we would be justified in detecting and/or jamming this communication, as it is not part of the student's body. This is no different from detecting the presence of a student's functioning larynx using an ear or microphone, when "no conferring with others" was part of the exam instructions (express or implied).

      What if the "cheater detector/jammer" is a device integrated into my body? If the student's use of an implanted device could not be prohibited, then neither could use of my device. If the sole determinant of whether it's OK to use an advanced technology in any given situation is whether it's part of the body, then I'm going to sew a Vespa to my ass and win every marathon I can get to (till somebody one-ups me with a Kawasaki, of course).

  6. Face it, the internet is largely a combination of an encyclopedia, newsstand and telegraph office, albeit one that has no peer review. Anyone can post anything. So, even if there was the possibility of finding the answer via 'google' glasses,' who is to say it would be correct.

    Knowledge of facts is not knowledge. Being able to synthesize said facts is knowledge.

    Try using google translate if you want to see the limitations of such technology.

    There is growing and compelling evidence that such students who take notes on laptops learn less, and that people who take photos end up remembering little or nothing of what they saw. Such forms of technology do not replace learning. The way the mind works is still unknown but generally, one learns only by doing. And sometimes, doing means memorizing.

    So, good luck to a generation who thinks learning is merely observing, clicking, and cutting & pasting.

  7. If students nowadays are as dumb as mine were when I quit teaching nearly a dozen years ago, having ready access to the Internet during exams wouldn't help.

    For courses I taught several times, I put old exams on file in the library. Those were exams where they actually had to work out sets of problems and present their solutions. Giving me the right answer wouldn't have been enough to get full credit--they had to show me how they got it. However, even if the answer was wrong, but their technique was generally correct or they made a minor arithmetic error, I often was quite generous with my marking.

    Having access to the Internet would have been of no benefit to them whatsoever.

    On the other hand, it wouldn't have helped them prepare for the exam, either. I not only announced to the students that the old exams were in the library, they were encouraged to look at them, copy them, and work through them. In fact, I took the questions for new exams from that set. All they had to do was figure out how to solve the questions and they had a good chance of passing the exam.

    But, even though my exams were open book and open notes, there were still a lot of students who did poorly on them, claiming I tested them on material that wasn't covered in my lectures or that they questions were "too hard". I swear that they were so inept that if I gave them exams that already had the answers filled in, they still would have crashed and burned.

  8. The way I'd *like* to handle it is by having one-on-one interview style oral exams. I'm imagining somethign like the old socratic method, where both learning examining take place in a dialogue between prof and a small gathering of students. As the wearable tech becomes more common, this may be the only way to test whether the student can synthesize and evaluate (you know - think critically about) all that raw information that the intertoobz make available.

    In modern academia, this is of course, a fantasy, because it takes a lot of personal attention, a lot of teachers, and therefore a lot of money.

    So one outcome I can picture is a small set of elite universities going back to this small class interactive style, catering to the economic elites and, I hope, deservingly bright students on scholarship. I'd guess these degrees will likely have a high value, because a student would really have to be able to think critically to pass.

    At the other end of the spectrum, for those who go to university just for a credential to get a job, cheating may become so rampant that the degrees lose their value and employers may wind up having to train their own employees (which might not be a bad thing). Of course any job that can be qualified for by relying on a machine to tell you the answers is likely to disappear as employers eliminate the human and just buy the machine.

    1. Ah, I was wondering how the wealthy characters in the 2013 film "Elysium," which were played by Jodie Foster and William Fichtner, got their educations. These characters are shown having a little electronics box with a little blue light in it attached to their skin behind their right ears, and they use them to exchange computer code and other information between their brain and computers, and each others' brains. That, and these characters are supposed to be over 100 years old. I think it's likely, though, that long before the year 2154, similar devices will be available that will be small enough to have no external parts.

  9. If you want a dystopian view of what the world will be like when everyone is plugged into the internet, read "Feed" by M.T. Anderson. The Google Glass scenario is referred to in the novel as the technology the "old people" use who refuse to get their brains "wired for sound," as it were. It's coming . . . and teaching is going to need to be one step ahead, pushing the synthesis and analysis level of information interaction, and the judicious gathering of it.

  10. Test them in a Faraday cage to block the WiFi signals.

  11. Since I'm among those whose teaching already concentrates, to a great extent, on teaching them to apply critical thinking of various sorts to the flood of available information, I don't think things will change too much for me, either. Of course, the treatment of comp teachers (and librarians) (underpaid, overworked, untenured, un-respected) doesn't offer a lot of hope that administrators will suddenly see the light and invest in the sort of labor-intensive forms of assessment (written papers and exams, the oral exams R &/or G suggests) that can test the effectiveness of the sorts of instruction students in the information-glut age actually need.