Cheating at school is like pirating music

Education needs to change. In order for an industry to change, it needs to somehow change itself or be forced to change by its customers.

Top-down changes are driven by an industry itself, for example via innovation. When Apple introduced the iPhone, the phone industry changed from the top-down. Bottom-up changes are driven by the customers of an industry, for example when their behaviors change. As more people discovered the convenience of pirating music online, the music industry changed from the bottom-up.

Industries can cause customers to change, or customers can cause industries to change. The outcome is the same in both cases—an industry and its customers have changed—but the direction of causality is reversed.

Bottom-up changes can be particularly potent in entrenched industries where baggage and bureaucracy breed complacency. Education is arguably one of our most important yet entrenched industries. Like the music industry before it, it’s ripe for some bottom-up change.

What if some forms of cheating at school are like pirating music: unfair, unsustainable, but ultimately disruptive? Consider some of the ways people can cheat these days:

  • Groups secretly work together on assignments despite being instructed to work individually. People want to collaborate. Education technology should facilitate collaboration.
  • Online sources are plagiarized or solutions are purchased. People want to remix, not recreate. Education technology should automate attribution and celebrate remixing. Original content creation is still important, but it can come later after students have learned more.
  • Google and Wikipedia can defeat questions in online tests. People want to search, not memorize. Education technology should embrace instant searching. Regurgitation sucks.

Students, cheaters, and entrepreneurs

I don’t condone cheating, but I think I understand it. It’s lazy, but it’s also efficient. Time is a valuable resource. Cheaters shift that resource out of lower and into higher productivity and greater yield (if only for the short-term). This is also one way to define an entrepreneur.

Yet students typically bear no resemblance to entrepreneurs or employees or anyone associated with companies.

Imagine a company whose employees have the ultimate goal of solving a certain problem. While solving this problem (which is made up by their boss), they’re forbidden from working together or communicating in any way. They can’t outsource or use other people’s technologies or ideas. They can’t use any technology or tools at all, actually. Except for a pen and pencil.

That’s the typical environment into which we thrust students when we send them to be judged by their exam solutions. We give them a contrived problem with absurd rules; it seems unsurprising that some of them cheat.

Adapt or die

Bottom-up change has a certain Darwinian inevitability about it. But if cheaters are indeed the new pirates, it might take awhile for us to spot the trend. The first sign will be underground technologies that put the students who use them in a grey area that is questionable yet somehow right. This could already be happening somewhere.

These tools, the Napsters of the education industry, will offer paths to learning that are so efficient, low cost, and convenient that the education industry as we know it will be forced to adapt or die.

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