21st century ‘cheating’ using Wikipedia

I got an IM from Kevin Lim this morning asking whether I knew anything about students posting papers up to Wikipedia, letting people fix them up and then turning them in.  I had never heard about that before, but it piqued my curiosity so I decide to do some Google Searches research.  While I didn’t find any actual instances of this occurring, I did make a few interesting discoveries.

On September 20th 2005, A.J. Jacobs wrote an article for Esquire magazine about Wikipedia and posted the entire article on the site.  He knew that it was full of inaccuracies, typos, and grammatical mistakes, but wanted to see what the Wikipedia community would do with it.  He left it open for three days.  After nearly 400 edits, he locked the final article on September 23rd, which was eventually published in the magazine.  News.com has an article detailing the entire process

After reading this article, Life Hacker came up with the brilliant suggestion of letting the Wikipedia community edit your next term paper for you.  A few other people picked up on the idea, and Kaironews even posted simple directions for doing so.

  1. Write a craptacular draft full of factual errors, incredible sources, and grammatical/mechanical mistakes.
  2. Post it to Wikipedia.
  3. Wait a few days and let the community clean it up for you.
  4. Turn it in!

Interesting idea, eh?  During my Google searches research, I couldn’t find any instances of students actually doing this, but it’s also entirely possible that they just haven’t been caught yet.  Regardless, it raises a few issues.

We do encourage students (and professionals) to have other people proof their work, correct?  In fact, many classrooms make that part of the writing process.  Don’t you remember passing your paper to your neighbor so they can read through it and give you feedback?  This really isn’t all that different.  It’s just a question of scale.  Typically you only share your paper with a few people for feedback because you don’t have access to a large community volunteering to help.  Besides, you always retain final control of your paper.  If you don’t like the suggestions/edits that someone makes, you could always elect not to incorporate them. 

I think the big question to consider is, what is the goal of the assignment?  If the goal is to create a paper that is accurate, well written and addresses the specific topic assigned, then I think using Wikipedia to proof and contribute to the assignment shows quite a bit of initiative and ingenuity.  However, if the goal of the assignment is to acquire an in-depth understanding of the topic at hand, then it’s possible that the assignment doesn’t actually address that.  Using that paper to actually present the information to an audience and discuss it might more accurately reflect whether the student has internalized it. 

Consider a typical assignment for second graders, "Turn in a short paragraph about an animal of your choice."  A student could very easily copy a paragraph out of Britannica.com, turn it in and fulfill the goal of the assignment.  However, they haven’t learned a thing about the animal.  Change the assignment to, "Imagine you are an animal of your choice.  Write a short paragraph about how you would spend your morning."  They can’t just copy and paste that.  They need to research the animal, read the information, synthesis it, and then they can compose their paragraph.  Is the former example cheating?  I don’t think so.  I think it’s completing the assignment, even though it may not be addressing the skills that the teacher wanted the student to be exercising.  But whose fault is that?

While doing my Google searches research I came across a guide to cheating during tests and examinations.  It could use a little proofing (maybe I should correct some of the spelling mistakes), but some parts of it are very well written.  To be honest, some of the ideas that students have for cheating are pretty slick.  In particular, I love the idea of peeling back the label on a water bottle, writing the answers on the inside of the label, and then sticking it back on.  However, there are a few lines in the paragraph about the rationale for cheating that I think is worth a little reflection. 

Any student who is wise to the ways of the teacher knows that their
methodology, especially in testing, is more often based on convenience
and expense than on effectiveness or applicability to real-world use of
the knowledge. Although methods of teaching and testing are extensively
studied, methods that work well are routinely avoided in favor of those
that are inexpensive or require little time or effort on the part of
the teacher.

Doesn’t sound too far from the mark, does it?  How do educators learn to create assignments that promote innovative and responsible usage of the resources available to 21st century students, instead of penalizing them for doing so?


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