Where does cheating begin?

Imagine this scenario… you are suddenly diagnosed with a life threatening disease, something very dangerous but quite curable if you have the right information about how to do so.  Your doctor knows that there is an answer to your serious problem, but cannot recall what drug is required to treat it.  He remembers reading something about it a long time ago, but can no longer recall the exact name of the drug.

He reaches towards the mouse on his computer, and begins to click a link that will take him to the online medical directory where he will find the answer he needs to cure your condition.

“Stop!”, you declare.  “That’s cheating!  If you can’t remember the name of that drug without looking it up, then what sort of doctor are you?  I want you to just remember it without looking it up.”

Of course, I imagine that if this situation were real you would be only too happy for the doctor to do whatever was required to find the cure for your disease.  You wouldn’t think twice about whether it might be considered “cheating” to look up the information needed to save your life… in fact you’d better hope that you have a doctor who a) knows there is an answer out there somewhere, and b) knows how to find it quickly.

I pondered this scenario today because I went to a dinner party with about 40 other people and we were presented with a trivia quiz on the table, something to keep us busy and entertained between food courses.  Being a celebration of Canadian Thanksgiving, the questions were all about Canada.  Now, I actually know quite a bit about Canada… I lived there for a year, travelled quite extensively through the historic eastern provinces, read a few books about Canadian history, and I have a Canadian girlfriend.  So I did know the answer to quite a few of the questions.

Of course, there were also questions I didn’t know the answer to.  And being the curious type who likes a challenge and to always learn more, I reached for my Nokia N95, pointed it to Google, and started looking for the answers to the questions I didn’t know.  If you have reasonable information literacy skills and can come up with good search keywords, finding answers to simple recall-style questions with Google is pretty easy.  In fact, you can usually find the answers just from the Google search results page without even going to the websites they link to.  It was not long before I had the elusive answers… in fact, I actually stumbled across the exact quiz that the questions were lifted from. Whoever put the quiz together had not changed anything, just used it directly from this website.  I casually copied down all the unknown answers onto the sheet and waited until it needed to be submitted.

Of course, when the sheets were finally collected and tallied, there was general astonishment that someone could have actually gotten all the questions 100% correct! A few people who knew what I’d done bandied about words like “cheating” and “unfair”.

For the record, I did not accept the prize – a lovely bottle of red wine – because I willingly admitted I had some help from my friends Mr Google and Mr Wikipedia, and I figured it would not have been fair to accept the prize.  I guess I just like to be a bit of a stirrer sometimes in order to make a point, even if only to myself.

But seriously, why do we build entire education systems based on rewarding people who can respond with the correct answers to questions, but then assume that any use of a tool to help them do this is cheating?   Why would a doctor in the scenario above get applauded for doing whatever was necessary to find an answer to the problem, but a student who does the same thing is considered a cheat.

If basic recall of facts is all that matters, a tool like Google can make you the smartest person in the room.  Today’s trivia quiz proved that.  If finding answers anywhere at anytime is a valuable thing to be able to do, then a mobile phone should be a standard tool you carry everywhere.

What I think people were really saying was that, if I was allowed to use my phone to find answers and everyone else wasn’t, then that would give me an unfair advantage.  And that may be true if I was the only person with access to Google, but the fact is that I didn’t do anything that every other person in that room could have done if they’d have chosen to.  The fact is, I was the only one in the room who used a tool that we all potentially had access to, but because I used that tool it made me a “cheat”.

And here’s the real point… mostly we ban these tools in our classrooms.  And we generally consider any student that uses such tools to find answers to our narrow questions to be a cheat.  And we drill into kids that when we ask them questions, when we set up those “exam conditions”, they better not even think about being “enterprising” or “creative” or “problem solvers”… Just know the answers to the questions, and show all your working too, dammit.

And you’d better hope that if one of those students ever grows up to be your doctor, the rigid thinking we may have instilled in them about “knowing the answers” has been replaced with a far more flexible skill for “finding the answers”.   Let’s hope that our kids don’t have too much trouble unlearning all the bizarre thinking that schools spend so much time drilling into them.

What do you think?  At what point does the ability to find answers cross the line and become cheating?

A Letter to Teachers about Learning

I’m running a course for our school staff at the moment called 23 Things. I borrowed the idea from the very successful 23 Things program run by the San Jose library, but have adapted it slightly for our particular school situation.

Essentially, the teachers work their way through 23 separate tasks, some as simple as reading a blog post or watching an online video tutorial, while some are a little more complicated such as setting up their own blog, feedreader and delicious accounts. The course runs over 9 weeks in total, and each week they are asked to do 3 or 4 “Things” – 23 in total – that will expose them to a wide range of Web 2.0 tools and ideas by the time it’s over.

I’m running the course internally using our school Moodle, and have set it up in such a way that people must sign up for the course and work their way through it a week at a time.  I thought it sounded like a good idea, and  so did they it seems… 14 teachers signed up for the course very soon after I announced it.

For all the palaver that teachers carry on with to students about the importance of time management, committment, and handing work in on time, it amazes me just how “flexible” a group of teachers expects a course to be. So far I’ve had one official drop-out, and really only 3 or 4 people who appear to be doing much at all. If this was their students that were taking such a relaxed approach to a course of study, I wonder if they would be quite so flexible and understanding.

I can’t write a note home to their parents, so instead I wrote a note to them… here’s what it said.

Some folk feel a little awkward or intimidated when they feel they don’t know how to do something… doing a course like this must feel a bit strange because you’re getting asked to do things that you have no idea how to do.

Let me remind you of something… the reason you are in this course (one can only surmise) is that you DON’T know how to do these things, but that you’d like to learn. So it’s ok not to know how to do them, or to not understand them. Applaud yourself for taking the plunge and signing up for 23 Things in an attempt to learn more about these things you don’t know.

Now, here’s a secret… if you have the Internet, you can learn to do almost anything. Try going to www.youtube.com and in the search box, type the thing you want to learn how to do… so, if you want to know how to set up Google Reader, go to YouTube and type “set up google reader“… you’ll find a bunch of tutorials to show you how. If you want to know how to make a Caesar salad, try typing in “how to make caesar salad” and viola! Dinner is almost served!

One of the unavoidable facts of life in the 21st Century is that Information is Abundant. If simple facts and data is what you need, or you want instructions on how to do something, then there is no shortage of information about it. In a previous age, school was predicated on the notion that Information is Scarce. Thanks to the Internet and tools like Google it no longer is, and this has changed the very nature of education. One of our greatest challenges in education nowadays is to deal with this idea that Information is no longer scarce… our students can (potentially) know as much (or more) than us about a particular topic. It doesn’t matter how much we know, there will always be more we don’t know.

For this reason we have to be continual learners, and we have to learn how to find answers to things that we don’t yet know. If this course was delivered face to face, I’d be able to explain and show you a lot of this stuff… but it’s not. And so you need to figure some things out for yourself and motivate yourself to find answers to problems that crop up.

By all means, I will help you if you get stuck and need a hand. But sometimes working it out for yourself can be the best thing you can do for yourself.

I have no idea whether it will make a difference or not, but I felt better after writing it.

More Tagging, Less Bookmarking

I had a little spare time tonight so I decided to do a job that I’ve been meaning to do for a while… cleaning up my bookmarks collection. (What’s up with that? I can live in a house that’s messy, my desk at work looks like a bomb has hit it, but my hard drive is really well organised… go figure!)

I mentioned recently that I’ve been using Flock as my main browser these days… mainly because it has a bunch of wonderful built-in features that seem really sensible, but I can’t help wondering why the bookmark organisation is set up like it is. One of the many nice things about Firefox, or even IE for that matter, is that you can arrange your collection of bookmarks/favourites into folders and subfolders. This is largely a very good thing, although I did notice I tended to get just a little over-organised at times and I had a large number of folders that had only one item in them, which is perhaps getting just a tad granular.

But I did have a lot of top-level folders with subfolders in them and it was, by and large, quite well organised.  So for example, in the folder labeled “Education”, there were subfolders for, say, “Literacy”, “Contructivism”. “Gifted Education”, and so on. The problem was that I often tended to forget what I put in these folders, and that sometimes I would find an interesting site and go to bookmark it for later use without realising I already had a sub folder catergory set up that was suitable. Over time, this led to quite a bit of duplication and disarray.

Flock however, does not support this subfoldering approach. Although Flock can imports bookmarks directly from Firefox, when you go to the bookmark organiser you only get a top-level folder for each category you imported, (including the stuff that was originally in subfolders).  In other words, every folder, no matter what level it was when it was imported, now becomes a top-level folder. This meant I ended up with LOTS of top level folders, in fact way too many to be sensibly managed. I’ve been spending some time tonight going through them and realising that many bookmarks have been linkrotted, some are just plain irrelevant, and most can be found quicker on Google than I can find them in my bookmark collection.

I’m finding that Google has changed the need to bookmark everything. If I want to find a site that I am after, it’s usually a simpler proposition just to Google it.

I’m also learning that tagging a bookmark is generally better than filing it, but I must admit I’m still really just starting to get my head around the tagging concept. I mean, I get it, but I’m still figuring out excatly how to organise things to get the best leverage out of the tagging system.

The really big plus for using Flock as my browser is that it has a very seamless integration with del.icio.us, so I can  bookmark both locally AND to the web. Firefox can do the same sort of thing by using an Add-On, but I do like the way it’s organised right inside of Flock.. that, and the built in Flickr uploader and web clippings make it a really useful tool.

Edublogs now has a neat plugin tool that lets me embed my del.icio.us feed directly to this blog page. I’ve currently added it as the last webpart on the right column, so scroll down a bit and you can see a list of the last few sites I’ve bookmarked. I’m not sure why sharing my favourite websites with the world is a good thing, but I guess I’ll do it anyway.

Anyway, I’m off to figure out how tagging works!

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An Un-Evil Web Photo Album

WebAlbumsWhen I first saw Google’s interface for search a few years ago it was like a breath of fresh air. It wasn’t cluttered with crap like every other major search engine seemed to be at the time. Yahoo! and whatever other search engines were around back then took a portal approach and jammed as much stuff on the screen as they could fit, whereas Google’s search tool was elegant in its simplicity. I’m sure this elegance is a major reason behind its ongoing success. That, and the fact that it would actually find what you wanted 99% of the time, and sites couldn’t buy their way into the top rankings.

For much the same reason I’ve not been a big fan of web photo storage sites like Photobucket or even Flickr, because of the amount of clutter and crap that goes along with them. I have a Flickr account but rarely use it because it’s just too, I dunno, inelegant…

So I was very pleased to have just discovered Google’s Picasa Web Albums, a free photo storage and web album service that benefits from Google’s same approach to simplicity and elegance. I’ve just been having a quick play with it, and it looks great. I especially like the way they have provided upload tools in the form of either a standalone application for uploading from your computer, or, my favourite, direct integration with iPhoto. Yep, just click on the photos you want to upload, choose Export from the File menu and you are presented with the Google upload dialog. A couple of clicks to choose quality settings, etc, and the job is done. You can make photos public or private, have large or small image views, get automatic slideshows, download individual photos, and it even comes complete with an RSS feed.

Full of useful features while still being easy and intuitive; just the way it should be.