Does Technology Change What It Means to Cheat?

“The first and worst of all frauds is to cheat oneself.”
Gamaliel Bailey

I came across an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education A Professor Wants to Fail Students for Sharing Information in an Online Chat. But Has Tech Changed What Qualifies as Cheating?  The article’s title proposes a question about what effect technology has on the meaning of cheating in education.  I’ve previously written about how technology makes it easier for students to commit plagiarism and gives faculty better tools to catch plagiarism (Technology and Plagiarism.) I didn’t address the issue of whether technology changes plagiarism or cheating.

When we talk about technology and cheating, we generally talk about how technology makes it easier for students to cheat.  We talk about training faculty to use technology and tools to catch students that are cheating.  We rarely talk about whether technology changes cheating.  So, what does it mean to cheat?  Some things are apparent or should be, plagiarism, copying another student’s answers off a test, and submitting somebody else’s work as your own is cheating.

However, at a fundamental level, what does it mean to cheat?  Like many of the words in the English language, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, the word cheat has lots of definitions, specifically 12.  The definition that works best for education is “: to violate rules dishonestly.”

Using the definition from Webster cheating, therefore, is anything that the rules of the course say.  With these definitions in mind, we can ask the question, does the technology in the chronical article change what it means to cheat? 

The technology in question is the messaging app GroupMe.  The app allows students to send messages to small or large groups of individuals.  GroupMe appeals to students because it is free, and it enables students to communicate without sharing personal information.  The students in question were in an online anthropology course at the University of Texas at Austin.  The professor, John Kappelman, Ph.D., has a course rule “Students are not permitted to ask about, discuss, or share information related to exams and labs.”

One of the students in the anthropology course shared exam information in the GroupMe.  In response, the professor recommended that the dean fail the 70+ students using the GroupMe app for his class.  At the time of this writing, the 70+ cases are still under review, and because of ethical rules, we may never learn the outcome of most of the cases.  However, most schools would agree that a faculty member has the authority to set rules, expectations, and consequences in their course.

If we accept the fact that faculty have the right to set their own rules and expectations, then the student posting exam information has violated the rules and therefore cheated.  What about the other 70+ students using the GroupMe app do they also deserve to be failed?  Did all 70+ students in the GroupMe app cheat? Let’s leave aside the question of whether a failing grade is a correct punishment, something I suspect would generate debate and ask did the other students cheat?

The chronical article is a little short on the facts. However, a report from the Huston Chronical, 70 University of Texas students face discipline for group message about exam offers a little more information.

“Around the time of the Anthropology course’s second exam earlier this month, she said a student had posted in the GroupMe asking what might be on the test. Another student responded with a list of all the textbook concepts the class had reviewed up to the exam, she said. A few hours later, she received Kappelman’s email [this was the email were Kappelman said he was recommending that the dean fail all the students].”

With the information from the Huston Chronical, we can now put the students into three groups. Group One is the student that requested proscribed information.  Group Two is the student that provided the proscribed information.  Group Three is all the other the students in the GroupMe. Again, leaving aside any debate as to whether this question should be considered cheating, following professor Kappelman’s rules, the students in Group One and Two have cheated.

What about Group Three? The other 70+ users from the class that saw the list of topics.  Let’s propose a theoretical alternative.  Suppose the professor did not have access to GroupMe, and instead of posting a list of topics covered, the student posted the answer key to the exam.  If other students read this information and then took the exam, a reasonable person would say they cheated.

However, let’s suppose that instead of being a real-time app, the student had to log-in each time to see their messages.  Suppose the student posted the exam answer key.  What if a student never logged-on to the app in between the time the student posted the answers and the time of the test?  Again, I think it is clear they didn’t cheat; they never saw the answers.

Let’s also think about a third situation.  Again, using the situation in which a student posted the exam key.  Suppose a student logged into the app and saw the exam key.  Instead of taking the exam, the student immediately contacts the professor and explains to them what happened.  One could technically say by reading the message, the student participated in a rule-breaking conversation.  However, they were not dishonest about it, and they did not seek to gain from the illicit knowledge they gained, so no, they didn’t cheat.

So, the real problem here is that most of the students, Dr. Kappelman, is punishing nether requested or posted rule braking material. Additionally, we don’t know what the students would have done or even how many saw the message.  It is also not clear if there is even a way to determine who saw and who did not see the information.

However, does the fact that it is not clear whether 70+ students cheated mean that technology has changed what cheating is?  I don’t think so; this entire situation could have happened without the GroupMe app.  Suppose instead of the instant message app, students used an old-fashioned telephone and answering machine or even paper letters mailed to each other.  One could also imagine a situation in which students posed notes on a contact board at a local coffee shop.

Suppose there is a coffee shop that all the anthropology students use.  A student posts a note on the contact board at that coffee shop saying, “Does anyone know anything about the exam coming up?” Another student posts the answer key on the contact board.  If a student comes in and reads the answer key and then goes and takes the exam, they would be cheating.  If a student comes in the coffee shop and never looks at the contact board and, therefore, never sees the answer key when they take the test, they would not be cheating.  Additionally, if a student reads, the contact board sees the answer key and then goes and tells the professor they are also not cheating.   Just like in the GroupMe case, the hard part would be finding a way for the students to prove whether they had seen the information on the contact board.

If you spend some time and think about it, you will see that modern technology rarely creates new situations.  Modern technology makes things easier and faster than previously posable.  Therefore we are not facing a situation in which students are cheating in fundamentally new ways. It is simpler, faster, and easier for them to cheat.  The problem at the core of the GroupMe scandal is the misuse of technology and incomplete rules, not changes to cheating.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

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