Does the Use of Information Technology in Education Encourage Cheating?

Student-created videos demonstrating cheating techniques imitate the use of information technology in education—and offer ways to analyze the culture of digital media in education.

| October 2014

In The War on Learning (MIT Press, 2014) Elizabeth Losh examines current efforts to “reform” the use of information technology in education, particularly in higher education. She finds that many technological solutions to educational problems fail because they treat education as a product rather than a process, and proposes six basic principles of digital learning integral to successful university-based initiatives. The following excerpt comes from Chapter 1, “What They Learn in College.”

Learning to Cheat Through Digital Media

“GMA,” said the woman answering the phone on the opposite coast. The acronym was unfamiliar, so it took me a moment to realize that I had the right number for Good Morning America and was calling the correct person back from the popular ABC television show.

Months before, I had written an item on my blog about the existence of online cheating videos, created by high school and college students, that demonstrate elaborate techniques designed to boost examination scores. The videos show, step by step, how to create fake drink bottle labels in Photoshop to hide formulae, how to stuff pen shafts with answer scrolls, and how to write detailed foreign-language conjugations on stretched-out rubber bands. Most of the videos had low production values and were shot in informal domestic settings, but at least one Japanese video borrowed the actual form of commercial distance learning, with distinct chapters on the subject of cheating; the lessons were elaborated with slick information graphics and computer-generated animation to enhance the instructional content.

My story about these academic dishonesty videos on YouTube had been picked up by a blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Then a reporter from the Shreveport Times interviewed me and ran an article about the subject, which later appeared in the large-circulation paper the Chicago Sun-Times. From there, the story reached researchers at Good Morning America who thought it had the right kind of national, light-news appeal for early morning mainstream audiences. Although I am an academic, Good Morning America apparently hoped that I might be an adequately colorful commentator for the show and asked me to speak to the phenomenon of this new kind of online dishonesty.

I thought the cheating videos were interesting because they demonstrated an argument that I had been developing over the course of the past decade. First, with regard to everyday practices and long-term goals, formal institutions of codified pedagogy, represented by universities, were increasingly in conflict with individuals who were informally self-taught. Second, access to and use of computational media frequently seemed to exacerbate this tension. I thought this situation was particularly unfortunate in the era of socially networked computing, when one would hope that academic and popular forms of instruction would be converging to work in concert, thereby supporting a life-long culture of inquiry, collective intelligence, and distributed research practices. Certainly, the students in the videos were sharing tips and performing online knowledge-networking activities that constituted of a form of real learning, even if such learning would be considered objectionable by their professors who would, understandably, regard the content of the videos as being fundamentally in violation of the scholarly social contract.

In these cheating videos, the students demonstrated that they understood the procedures of their own educational institutions and had learned a different approach to the sequences of operations involved in the minutiae of test-taking—an approach that might guarantee higher scoring success. They had achieved mastery of something that seemed relevant to success in the university, but it wasn’t what their professors wanted them to have learned.