Designing school when students have the Teacher’s Copy

I’m presenting at the Plymouth State University Open Collab Jump Start session tomorrow and the fine folks there asked for a one pager to accompany the talk. 

We have reached a point in our society where anyone with access to the internet is in the midst of the transition between information scarcity and information abundance. For some that transition looks like the ability to find song lyrics or just-the-right-recipe, but for anyone working in their area of expertise, it has had a huge impact on what it means to be someone who ‘knows’. There’s more to know that anyone legitimately could. There are new ways to look at things coming at us all the time. There are often several legitimate, opposing ways to see the same problem in the same field. 

Covid19 didn’t create any of this, but it has accelerated many people’s perception of it. Access to this knowledge and information comes at a huge cost. We can no longer find an answer and be comforted that our search is finished. We are instead confronted with hundreds of answers and need to choose what to do, choose this one or that one or, more likely, pick bits and pieces from them to build our own answer. Our world is harder.

These changes were already underway before the pandemic, and they have already had a fundamental impact on the way that our students approach learning. The generation currently attending our universities may not be proficient with these new technologies, but they are fundamentally aware of their implication. They know they can google something. They know they can find a great explanation of a concept online. They know they can reach out to a dozen friends with the flick of the thumb and get help with something. They know that all the answers are already online. They already have the teacher’s copy of every textbook. It’s called the Internet.

What is not so clear is what we are going to do about it.

If you give any question to a student that has a clear, definitive answer, you are tempting them to cheat. Every time you hand out a question from a textbook, an assignment you created last year or give someone a multiple choice test you are performing the equivalent of leaving candy on the table next to a hungry teen and saying ‘don’t eat it’. Over and over again. It used to take effort to cheat. It is now very, very difficult for a student to NOT cheat. Two quotes in the last few weeks from students sum this up for me. 

“The people who aren’t cheating simply aren’t getting the better marks”

“I don’t cheat because I don’t care what my final grade is”

There is no topic that has taken up more of my time during the pandemic than the idea of students cheating. From the terrible things that are being done by proctoring companies to both students and to their critics, to honest and sad conversations with faculty who are frustrated that students aren’t doing the work that was assigned. From companies like Chegg and Course Hero (that both have ‘cheating’ resources but also do tutoring etc…) to full-on contract cheating where students are paying outside organizations to do their work taylor-made to the assignments assigned in class. 

We could make those things illegal. Like, in the courts. Some countries have tried… but even some of the researchers looking at legal ways of addressing this issue don’t think it will work “it is not clear that a legal approach would be effective, or that we would even know, or that it would address the demand for contract cheating services.” Trying to stop this kind of cheating is basically fighting a war we will not win. Plus, let’s face it, it’s exhausting. I know faculty that are constantly monitoring for cheating. And they hate it. It’s wasted effort. 

Plus what are we legislating against. We’re creating laws that stop students from looking for information. How does that make sense? The knowledge landscape (abundance) and the audience landscape (our students) have fundamentally changed. And now, because of Covid19, we can all talk about it. As soon as I’m going to say “we can design our way out of this” there are going to be a vocal group of people who say we can’t. Shrug. The other way doesn’t work. We need to try and design our way out of it. 

I’m left with questions…

How do we design for trust?

What are the actual important things we need students to learn in our class?

Are any of us really qualified to say what anyone else ‘needs to know’ about a given field?

If we are only delivering content to our students, what is the value add we are providing as instructors? 

What does it mean to put our relationship with our students at the forefront of our design process? 

What does it mean for our students to be ‘informed’ after they leave our classes?

How much of our system was designed to solve the problem of information scarcity?

If we take out all the parts of our system that were designed for information scarcity… what’s left?

How do we move our focus away from stopping students from cheating and encouraging them to want to do the work?

Is this even possible to make these changes in large classes?

So what do we do for now?

I’m afraid the answer is the same as it was a few months ago. Design with care. Imagine activities that your students will enjoy. Build trust where you can. Be present, even in your assignments. Do longer term-style assignments where your formative feedback applies to their work. Talk to them about why you love what you know. Try to encourage them to care about what you know. Hold on.

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Just found this tweet from the summer… on trust and care from Simon Thomson. https://twitter.com/digisim/status/1297815044114264064 Feels like it might have influenced this post.