Monday, May 18, 2009

Virtual Study Group or Cheating Bank?

Interesting article in today's NY Times about websites that offer solutions to problems in leading math and science textbooks, sample research papers, working computer code for computer classes, old exams, and answers to questions posted by members.

What does a professor think about such a website? Glad you asked.

The answer, I would say, is that the websites (based on the report, I haven't checked out each of them) do little more than duplicate what is already available in old-fashioned, human form. They don't pose strikingly new problems; rather, they present familiar issues about how much collaboration is permitted on different kinds of assignments.

With regard to homework, for example, the background understanding, I would say, is that, unless otherwise specified by the instructor, collaboration on homework is permitted. We all know that students form study groups and help each other out to some degree. A website that duplicates this practice strikes me as no worse than old-fashioned study groups. I would say that a student who completely copied a whole set of homework answers has cheated, whether the copying is from a fellow student or from a website, but students who get some help are OK. There's not an exact line and students need to exercise reasonable judgment. In any event, as the article noted, this problem is "self-policing," in that students who don't really do the homework will not learn the material and will suffer at exam time.

The article mentions a student who posted a question from a take-home exam and got help from the website community. That's clearly cheating. The assumption (which should be expressly stated by instructors) is that collaboration is not permitted on exams. Students are on their honor for a take-home exam, and using the Internet to violate the rules is the same as getting help from a fellow student.

As to posting old exams, I think this should be within the control of the professor, but at the same time, a professor who gives the same exam year after year is asking for trouble. Students routinely look at old exams for help preparing for each new exam, and professors should assume that old exams are available. Still, posting old exams against the wishes of the professor would be a copyright violation, so if professors really want to make a stink about it, they could.

But in the end, like so many things on the Internet, it's not as new as it might seem. It's just an extension of long-existing practices.

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