Cheating When it Doesn’t Count

As midterm week approaches at Duke, numerous instances of cheating can be heard on the C1, on the plaza, and in Perkins.

– “Oh, I STINFed that class. Had to study for orgo.”
– “Can I see your p-set? I don’t have time to do it.”
– “First time I’ve written a paper without Adderall!”

Pressures are high, and so we cut corners.

But why would students cheat for classes that “don’t count?” The online course company, Coursera, reported dozens of instances of plagiarism in a sci-fi fantasy course attended by 39,000 students.

The class (and all classes offered through Coursera) is free, peer-graded, and carries no academic credit, except a certificate of achievement. Fun fact: Duke Professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong teaches the largest Coursera course — over 180,000 are enrolled.

So, why did the students cheat?

An article by The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that many instances of plagiarism could be attributed to the various cultural background of the students. In countries such as China and Uganda, where I have taught, this seems plausible. Watching students study English by copying passages of a textbook over and over, it seems logical to me that they may lift sentences off Wikipedia or another author for a for an essay.

Nevertheless, confusion about what constitutes plagiarism can’t be the sole causal factor. Perhaps its also the unrelenting strive to “succeed” and the fear of failure. Even though Coursera is ungraded and open to the public, some of the students who voluntarily enroll may be similarly motivated as Duke Students. Thus, cutting corners may be a means to “achieve” and “succeed” in front of their peers.

So, does it matter?

At Duke, cheating has consequences for both the person and his or her peers. Curves are ruined, grades skewed. Plagiarizing on Coursera on the other hand, carries little academic consequence.

Given that students enroll for free, papers are peer-graded, and there is no academic credit, besides a certificate of completion, does it make sense to punish cheaters? What really is at stake?

I believe the answer is yes. Cheating is a categorical wrong in an academic setting. Imagine enrolling in the sci-fi class to seek intellectual fulfillment (or accomplishment), only to find yourself reading paper after paper of the synopsis of Frankenstein from Wikipedia.

Although we think of higher education as an outputs-oriented institution (think research, degrees, etc), it’s also a process as well. Avoiding the process of learning kills the meaning of education, especially in a “purer” learning experience such as Coursera where academic accreditation is not likely the end objective.

Coursera’s mission is to first and foremost foster a vibrant intellectual community. So while cheating doesn’t “count” in terms of “As, Bs, and Cs,” it certainly matters to the students and the future of the program. Granted, it’s silly to expect a “class” of 180,000 engaged, intellectually curious students. Nevertheless, plagiarism is certainly preventable, and worth preventing.

The Dark Side of Black Friday

We all have an image of the ideal Thanksgiving Day set in our heads. It is a day of cooking, feasting, and eventually laying in food comas. It is a day of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving special, and football. It is a day of laughter, catching up, and enjoying the wonderful company of family and close friends. It is a day of reflection, appreciation, and giving thanks. But, this has all changed in recent years.

This year as families were sitting down to feast on a thoughtfully planned out and carefully cooked dinner, 307. 67 million Americans were standing in lines outside of major retailers. This year Black Friday, the day of shopping historically following Thanksgiving Day, took over Thanksgiving Day. Stores such as Wal-Mart opened as early as 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. About 10% of the shoppers were out at stores by 8 p.m. on Thursday and an estimated 28% of shoppers were at the stores by midnight, compared to 24.4% last year. That means millions of Americans cut their Thanksgiving festivities short to shop. So it can be argued that sneaky and creative retailers have transformed what was created as a day of thanks into a day of greed.

As evidence note that the number of Black Friday sales this year hit the all time high. Total spending over the four-day weekend totaled $59.1 billion, up 12.8 percent from 2011. Thanksgiving online sales rose 32 percent from last year to $633 million. And online sales on Black Friday were up 26 percent from the same day last year to $1.042 billion. Chew on these facts. They don’t taste as good as that homemade stuffing or grandma’s apple pie did, do they? That’s because they’re not delicious, appetizing, or appealing. They are a reflection of the disgusting consumerism that has engulfed America. They are evidence that desire has overwhelmed gratitude. And that’s not a leftover I am anxious to dig into. Continue reading “The Dark Side of Black Friday”

Made in America: Competitive Consumerism

It’s undeniable: here in America, we take our shopping seriously. Even in the face of the most serious economic recession in decades, people still love shopping for anything they can, or even can’t, afford. In fact, “love” might not really begin to fully explain the obsessive-compulsive relationship many American consumers have with their favorite brands, product lines and gadgets. This kind of overzealous customer loyalty can lead to restless, pushy, and sometimes even violent crowds.

It is not surprising that as part of the kick-off to the holiday season, the oh-so-American passion for gluttony, self-indulgence and vigorous over-spending expands not just in the kitchen but in the wallet and out into the public sphere. The incident from this past Black Friday demonstrates just how willing some consumers are to do whatever it takes to purchase what they want. The key word here, of course, is “some.” To what extent are these somewhat isolated incidents whose frequency are nevertheless marginally increasing representative of shifting consumer behavior norms in America? What approach can be taken to handle these incidents in trying to identify the line between healthy consumer competition and dangerous shopping situations?

Sure, it might seem like an extreme example, and it is. But every year during major holiday sales, special releases and limited-time-only events you’ll find a throng of people waiting anxiously to be the first to see, try, or buy insert-cool-new-item-here. And when this cool-new-item has limited availability, some consumers seemingly will do whatever it takes to get their hands on it. You’ve heard about competitive marketing. Enter competitive consumerism.

An incident late last week in Orlando, Florida served as a prime example of customers anticipating the midnight release of a new, limited edition Nike shoe shortly before the commencement of the NBA All-Star weekend festivities. What was even more surprising than the actual customers themselves – who reportedly ran across a parking lot to be closer to the actual store after being contained across the street by police – was the immediate and somewhat overdone, though perhaps well-meaning, response of the entire police force of Orlando. When all was said and done, more than 100 police officers dressed in riot gear, on motorcycles and horses, as well as a helicopter, rushed to the scene to diffuse the situation.

On one hand, given some of the more violent shopping events that have occurred in the past calendar year, such as the Air Jordan release, it’s understandable that security forces in Orlando would be determined to prevent serious injuries or disturbances outside the Nike store on Friday. However, one must consider how necessary the deployment of such an intense number of police officers and resources was really necessary for a crowd (whose size is currently undisclosed) just eager to buy some cool kicks. As a major city, surely Orlando needs the services and protection of its police in much more serious situations in the wee hours of a Friday? Though consumer behavior trends are in some ways cause for more and more concern, what could half of those police officers been doing, or helping with, or maybe even saving or preventing, if they weren’t all dressed up in riot gear outside a shoe store? What dangers were left to permeate the streets of Orlando while a large police force dallied with a group of shoppers?

To be sure, the potential for serious violence in shopping situations exists and has been demonstrated many times, and a town or a city, or even a government, has a responsibility to its people to regulate such situations to be as safe as possible. But at what price? Couldn’t the time and resources allocated to this one instance of Nike fan anticipation have been better directed towards any of the other more serious problems Orlando faces, like crime, homelessness, and violence?

So, yes, the behavior of American consumers sometimes can seem out of hand, uncalled for, irresponsible, and even dangerous. But what’s just as important to consider is the quality of the response of officials in their ability to effectively regulate and control these situations. A thoughtful discussion can easily be had about American priorities and the appropriateness or rationality of certain shopping behaviors. What people aren’t really talking about, though, is what role security officials can play in alleviating these situations, what they’re not doing well, and what more they can do to respond to shopping conflicts in a way to maximize functionality and success while maintaining security to an appropriate scale. In the end, how can we define some healthy consumer competition that’s good for our economy, and behavior that warrants strict, even forceful responses from security and police personnel?

Grading the Teachers

istock_000014618325small1This recent opinion piece from The New York Times explores the evaluation—or rather, an instance of miscalculation—of teachers based on a rather complex formula.

According to her principal and her students, Ms. Isaacson is a “wonderful” and “terrific” middle school teacher who makes the material “much easier to learn.” Yet, when the stats of her students’ performance are plugged into a formula meant to weed out “bad teachers,” Ms. Isaacson came out in the 7th percentile. This result seems incredibly low for a universally popular teacher, and with her tenure at stake, we might ask whether a mistake has been made: Was there a math error in the formula, or were her peers and students somehow mistaken or biased?

Continue reading “Grading the Teachers”

Coaches vs. Professors (Salaries)

Due to the rough economy, Texas Tech University froze $3 million in faculty salary for the year 2011, and naturally, it is the perfect time for its administration to raise the salary of Tommy Tuberville, the head football coach, by 1/6th of that amount, guaranteeing him at least $2 million a year till the year 2015.

For the record, Texas Tech’s football went 8-5 last year.

But who knows? Maybe the man’s family is starving with his measly $1.5 million salary from last year. Don’t worry though, both Coach Tuberville and the athletic director declined to comment when inquired by the press.

The university president Bailey says he is “sympathetic,” but they are keeping a promise they made last year (what a man of his word! but don’t they have contracts for professors to honor as well?).

To expand more on the topic, here’s an interesting video featuring Coach Calhoun, the head basketball coach of the University of Connecticut, if you haven’t seen it yet:

Continue reading “Coaches vs. Professors (Salaries)”

Kansas University: Now recruiting top AARP prospects

The University of Kansas Athletics Department has taken commitment and accountability to the next level: they have hired a legion of retired-folk (no, not The American Legion, but similar) to assure that their athletes attend class. The full article can be found in the Wall Street Journal’s riveting Life and Culture: Sports section.

First, I’ll set aside all jabs about Duke’s athletic superiority over that of the Jayhawks. Now, let us break down where two ethical questions may arise: one, should these athletes be tracked and two, why do the trackers have to be elderly people?

When I think of college, I think not of more rigorous academics, learning to live with another person, or consuming disgusting amounts of pizza: I think of freedom. Included in my freedom is the choice to attend – or not attend – class. By hiring trackers to check up on these athletes’ attendance, KU is eliminating a fundamental component of the college experience. Should they stigmatize these students on the basis that they are athletes? They forfeit many freedoms when becoming a student athlete, should the liberty to skip class and catch up on sleep every now and then be one of the opportunities forgone?

Continue reading “Kansas University: Now recruiting top AARP prospects”