CNN recently ran a story about students using iPods to cheat on tests. It talks about students who have recorded course material to listen to during their tests, resting their heads on their hands to hide the headphones. Several schools in the U.S. and Canada have subsequently banned all electronic devices from their schools.
Cheating is bad, obviously, but the ways in which classes are too often taught in the U.S. and elsewhere is as much to blame as new technology. When I was in high school, students cheated much more often in the dull classes than in the hard, challenging classes. (And we did it the old-fashioned way—by writing on our hands!) In dull classes, students are expected to be something like an “electronic device” themselves: recording facts and formulas so they can be “played back” during the test. When history, for instance, is taught as a list of facts and dates to be memorized, it’s small wonder that students use their technological knowledge to avoid such tedium.
The best classes I took in high school and college introduced me to ways of thinking—disciplines—more than simply to a body of information. The tests then asked us to apply those disciplines to new subjects, an approach which makes it difficult to cheat. You couldn’t use an iPod very effectively to cheat on an in-class essay test, for instance, or a biology test that asked you to devise an experiment to test a particular hypothesis. Interesting classes are harder to cheat in, and because they’re engaging, fewer students will need or want to cheat in them.
My guess is that many teachers teach boring, “cheatable” classes not just out of laziness but due to state bureaucratic demands for standardized, quantitative ways of comparing school performance. This story in the L.A. Times cites figures showing that fifty-seven percent of California teachers who quit their jobs cited “bureaucratic interference” as a reason for leaving. As long as students are expected to be iPods, some of them will outsource the work to the real thing. The great irony is that students using technology creatively like this (however dishonestly) may often be learning a more valuable skill than they would if they bothered with memorizing a long list of facts.