COMMENTARY | The Atlantic has posted an intriguing story about college teachers and professors launching a sting operation, which ends up speaking volumes about the state of education and its current and future challenges. It deals with youthful entitlement, the rise of online teaching and learning through MOOCs, the hesitancy of college administrators to deal with cheaters, and the role and nature of higher education in our globalized economy. And, like many good stories today, it began with a Craigslist ad…
It all started with a young woman who did not want to take her college math placement test. So, brazenly, she posted a Craigslist ad seeking a similar-looking young woman, a tall brunette, to take the test for her. The young woman also said that the lucrative relationship could be extended to the subsequent math course itself if the placement test ruse was successful, with the tall brunette simply taking the online class for her. Hoping to give the bold cheater a just comeuppance, an online group of college teachers who noticed the Craigslist ad began planning a sting operation.
A tall brunette of an English professor planned to accept the deal and expose the cheater. However, she and her cohort decided to err on the side of ethics and not go through with the plan, which would have involved academic dishonesty. Instead of going through with the ruse to snap the trap on the girl, the teachers decided to approach college administrators directly and find out what the punishment was for such blatant attempts to cheat.
Disappointingly, the teachers found that relatively little would be done. The Craigslist poster would receive a written warning with only the possibility of academic probation. If the cheating continued, the punishments would get more severe, only eventually culminating in expulsion. Obviously, the teachers and professors of the online group were outraged at such lenient punishment. And, worryingly, they were not surprised – most had come to expect such coddling of plagiarists.
In the end, the teachers documented the girl’s Craigslist transgressions and reported her to the college where she was planning to enroll, with the college only saying it would put a [possibly temporary] hold on her admission. The girl herself was relatively unperturbed, justifying her attempts to cheat on her “limited timetable” and the fact that math was “def” not her “strong suit.” Basically, she thought cheating was no big deal because the ends justified the means.
She wasn’t a math person, probably wasn’t going to be majoring in a math-based field, so why bother to master the numbers? It’s just busywork anyway, right?
And therein lies a problem: What is the role of higher education today? How much is career prep and how much is intellectual growth and enlightenment? Many decades ago, before the G.I. Bill spread the dream of college to the middle class masses, society accepted a much larger “intellectual growth and enlightenment” role when it came to higher education. Rich young folk, mainly men, went off to universities and learned from old, graying professors via lecture and leather-bound book. They made social connections with other rich young men (and their relatives), thus propelling the younger generations into business, finance, law, etc.
Today college is far more egalitarian, open to the masses, and seen as directly providing skill sets needed for middle-class jobs that require technical, interpersonal, and communication proficiency. College is about skill-building and career prep, not socializing and intellectualizing, and about learning facts and procedures rather than theories and the Classics. While this is well and good and reflects our changing economy and culture, are we allowing it to weaken our academic standards and ethics?
Since college is now about results rather than the process, are we less focused on maintaining the purity of the process? It seems that, for various reasons, we are. Part of it is sheer pragmatics: As government and societal investment in widespread higher education increases, colleges and universities are encouraged to meet investment demands…which includes passing many students who would not have met muster in decades past. Part of it may be a change in technology: With mountains of digital data available at the swipe of a finger, and help from colleagues worldwide only a smartphone call away, why do we insist that students work independently? Why not collaborate?
Do old-school notions of academic integrity still hold true in a modern world where everything seems to be a group effort and everything is updateable, reformable, and digitally rewritable?
As we head down the path of attempting to put everyone through college we must decide what academic integrity means in the 21st century. We should not pay lip service to traditional standards if we no longer intend to uphold them. Nor should we adopt new standards if they would harm our academic rigor and lead to a generation without work ethic.