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When Education Gets Too Virtual

Students can use technology to undermine the integrity of education.

InformationWeek Green -  Mar. 4, 2013 InformationWeek Green
Download the entire May 2013 issue of InformationWeek Education, distributed in an all-digital format (registration required).


Hacking Higher Education

The visions of how technology can help students learn are promising. The reality of how students can use technology to undermine the integrity of education is already here.

The cover story of the new issue of InformationWeek Education begins with a recent news item about two students at Ohio's Miami University who used keylogger devices to capture professor passwords and gain access to an online grade book. They were arrested and expelled after admitting to changing grades for themselves and others.

In a similar case at California's Palos Verdes High School in January 2012, three students were charged with first breaking into the janitor's office to steal a classroom master key. They reportedly planted keylogging devices on multiple computers, mined passwords, and used them to alter scores on tests and homework just enough to bump grades up a bracket. The three students set up a commercial operation, charging $300 to boost a grade from a B to an A, according to the Los Angeles Times. They were charged with burglary and conspiracy to commit burglary.

My 12-year-old son has been known to do a little shoulder surfing to capture the "learning coach" password his mom and I use on the online educational website K12.com. He and his sister are in a virtual school, so getting the password let him grade some of his own schoolwork. The good news is that he isn't as clever as he thinks he is and routinely gets stopped when he tries a tactic like this one. My hope is that as he matures, he'll learn the lesson that it's more rewarding to actually do the work.

The Palos Verdes High School students were apparently smart kids, taking honors and AP classes. It's unclear whether they needed to inflate their own grades. None of the news stories I've read reports how they were caught, but it seems likely that news of their "enterprise" got back to school officials. At Miami University, a professor noticed that the grades in the online system didn't match her paper notes. To make such exploits easier to detect, the university's technology team is modifying its grade book software to send an email notification to instructors whenever grades are changed so they can confirm the legitimacy of those changes.

Academic cheating is nothing new. Like many of the ills associated with unauthorized use of computer systems, digitization just provides new techniques and temptations.

Do online education tools make cheating easier? Maybe, but in all of the examples cited above, cheating was thwarted by people who care about education and were paying attention. Should my son's grades get an inexplicable boost, or his latest essay show better spelling, grammar and vocabulary than he has produced before, his mom will know and have a talk with him. The Miami University students apparently tried to cover their tracks by changing grades for other students in addition to themselves. However, once investigators started looking at the pattern of grade changes across multiple courses, it wasn't hard to see a couple of students turning up as the common denominator.

As the digitization of education continues, "auditing a course" may take on a whole new meaning, as educators seek better ways to verify that grades reflect actual learning.

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