Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Loophole Generation

I'll give 'em loopholes In the latest edition of Innovate, Jennifer Summerville and John Fischetti put their finger on the biggest and most serious problem in higher education, the failure of the majority of students currently entering university to engage with the educational objectives perceived by academic staff, instead preferring to put their energies into complicated strategic games:
When we speak to colleagues across campus and across the country, almost everyone who teaches online tells the same stories. An increasing number of students spend considerable energy seeking, finding, and negotiating loopholes in online course assignments. While this behavior is not new or shocking, the anonymous, self-driven nature of online classes may exacerbate the tendency. Rather than the exception, this behavior is becoming the rule.

We coined the phrase Loophole Generation to describe a group of students whose approach to coursework is influenced by the ease of online communication, hovering parents, a limited sense of intellectual curiosity, and a lack of experience in solving problems imaginatively. These students spend their time (and their instructors' time) exploiting gaps in class policies or assignments - sometimes spending more time than would be necessary to complete a particular project in the first place.
This is equally true of UK higher education as it is of the USA. I've been tending to blame the changes on assessment practices at GCSE and A level, but hearing the same complaint from the USA makes me pause. Summerville and Fischetti identify four loopholing strategies:
  • The Excuse Maker: Old howlers typified by "my dog ate my homework" have evolved into more plausible stories such as "the system was down," "I have a virus on my computer," or "I sent you the wrong attachment." Appeals to a family or personal crisis remain the most popular source of excuses for not completing assignments, and the technology that makes online education possible makes an ironic contribution to this class of loophole-seeking behavior.
  • The Bully: The bully can cast a pall over an entire class, often by combining negative comments with personal insults, threats, and harassment. Some bullies use derogatory or flippant language in discussions and postings that they would not use in live settings. Communications technology can enable this behavior, making students feel less pressure to moderate their self-presentation.
  • The Cheater: He or she may copy entire assignments from another classmate, submit work posted as examples by the professor as his or her own, contribute little to no work to group projects, have someone else help with an online test, or purchase an entire paper from an online retailer. These students are fully aware of what they are doing. Even with university honor codes and instructor-developed online codes of ethics, this behavior persists.
  • The Plagiarizer: specializes in creating a mosaic of several sources and presenting the results as his or her own. Many such students have plagiarized their way through high school and basic studies courses in college, often without completing any project that consists of something other than borrowed information. The ease of access to an abundance of materials on the Web makes this easy to accomplish, and the emphasis on test-taking in K-12 education has influenced many students to seek answers rather than to explore questions.
Their suggestions for eliminating loopholing include making it more difficult to find and exploit loopholes in classes than it is to actually complete coursework and designing coursework that rewards independent thought and squashes the idea that loopholing is a productive use of time.

Alternatively of course, we (academics) could just show some cojones, expose their lying and cheating behavior as worthy of shame and publicly chuck them out without qualifications. Sadly, I don't believe that in our cost-driven higher education system, where bums on seats are more important than truth, trust and integrity, that this is likely to happen. Instead, we will continue to beat ourselves up over our failure to devise sufficiently complex assessment strategies that the cheating little bastards can't crack. Maybe they would benefit more from some tough love.

Or am I being too hard on the poor little darlings?

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