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Alan Zisman on the Mac

iPods Offer Students New Ways to Cheat - or Do They?

- 2007.06.12 - Tip Jar

First published in CUE BC Newsletter.

As long as there have been students, teachers, and assessment, there has been cheating. New technology results in new methods of cheating; online sale of essays has gotten a lot of attention in the past few years, for example. Reportedly, some cellphone savvy students text-message questions and answers to one another during tests.

Recently, though, the media has started reported on some schools or districts banning iPods, presumably as a result of these popular music players being used to help cheat on exams. For instance, in late April, the CBC offered a story, originally carried by the Associated Press, under the headline "Schools ban iPods to stop cheaters".

According to the story, "Mountain View (a high school in Meridian, Idaho) recently enacted a ban on digital media players after school officials realized some students were downloading formulas and other material onto the players." The article notes other music player bans in schools ranging from Seattle to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, to the University of Tasmania.

The story quotes a grade 11 Mountain View student as saying that some students had recorded test answers, adding the resulting audio files to their iPod playlists. Other students reportedly used the music players text notes feature to display test notes.

A grade 12 student who said she used to bring her iPod in order to listen to music after finishing her test noted that students were still able to use their iPods despite the ban: "You can just thread the earbud up your sleeve and then hold it to your ear like you're resting your head on your hand."

As with too many other media accounts, it's not clear to me whether there is a real problem here. A school in Idaho, another in Ontario does not necessarily indicate a widespread trend - too often if journalist find two examples of something, they proclaim it "the next big trend".

Still, the issue isn't limited to those few schools; recently, for instance, staff at Vancouver's Gladstone Secondary debated (but failed to pass) a motion to ban cell phones and MP3 players from the school.

In fact, making a recording of yourself speaking your test notes, saving the audio file, then playing it back during the test is an awkward way to cheat - it can require listening to a relatively long file that may be only marginally related to the actual questions being asked. Saving fragments of text is more efficient, but frankly it's not clear to me that this is a better way to cheat than having a note-laden slip of paper in a pocket.

It's really not about iPods (or cell phones, for that matter). Tech gadgets are not inherently good or evil. While the University of Tasmania has, according to the CBC/AP story, banned iPods, the same story notes that North Carolina's Duke University has been giving iPods out to students for the past three years as a learning tool. The news story reports that the university claims they have been invaluable in subject areas ranging from engineering to music to sociology - and notes that the number of incidents of cheating have been declining over the past decade despite the growing availability of technology, including the university-supplied iPods.

Tim Dodd, directory of Duke's Center for Academic Integrity notes: "Trying to fight the technology without a dialogue on values and expectations is a losing battle. I think there's kind of a backdoor benefit here. As teachers are thinking about how technology has corrupted, they're also thinking about ways it can be used productively."

So maybe it's not really about technology but about clear expectations - and about supervision during test-taking. Instead of heavy handed bans, make sure students know that gadgets- cell phones, iPods, whatever, are not appropriate in testing situations. And then follow up.

It's not that hard, during a test, to notice students with wires coming out of their ears, is it? LEM

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, www.zisman.ca. If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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