Monday, March 17, 2008

Assignments and the Internet

I had an assignment earlier this year to use the internet to find archival materials relating to the beer industry. It was a lot more frustrating than I had expected because the wording of the assignment hadn't made it quite clear if I was doing what was expected. Then, I went to google, and typed in the professor's exact question in quotation marks.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a former student's responses to the same assignment popped up on my screen. I already had more than enough to submit my response, but I was able to use what I found from my search to reassure myself that I was doing the assignment correctly.

The fact that the answers to this assignment are on the internet rather compromises the integrity of it as a learning experience. But, who is to blame in this case?

Is it the student, who has self-published an answer key to an assignment? Or is it the teacher who has tried to save time by reusing something that is now obsolete?

This year, I have been encouraged to publish everything I write on the internet or otherwise. It is certainly an excellent way to produce a portfolio of work that could be used to get further in academia or in the writing industry. Yet, I know in many cases, by posting my work I will ruin an assignment for a professor and force them to either do more work and think of something new, or continue to use what is now a poor test of critical thought.

Right now, I am working on an assignment that asks me to write a compare and contrast review of the only two histories written on the eighteenth century trial of Mrs. Rudd for forgery. These two histories also happened to be written within a year of each other, and it appears neither author knew what the other had been working on. This certainly doesn't happen every day, and it provides a unique and important exercise for students trying to learn more about historiography. But, if I post my review, next year students will be able to use it as a guide. Be able to quote it even. The assignment won't require the same level of critical analysis.

Journals won't publish an article that too closely resembles something they've already published, because it's already been done. Scholarship exists to fill in the gaps in knowledge, not to repeat it in slightly different words. And if I publish it, I will have done this topic.

But, is this my concern?

It has become very clear this year that many students are better with the internet than are their professors. I'm sure my professor this year was entirely unaware that a google search of his question would lead me to someone's responses. But, if unchecked, a problem like this can practically ruin an entire course.

I know of a course this year in which the professor was unaware that the students had access to the textbook's solution manual through the internet. The students had been copying out all their responses without learning a thing (as their failing midterm marks made abundantly clear). And yet the professor did not seem to catch the signs. Not only were the questions from an old textbook, but the students were strikingly efficient with them. Even though the questions were handed out at the beginning of lecture and should have taken 2 hours to complete, many students had no problem perfectly completing the assignments while taking lecture notes by the end of the 1 hour class. Of course, they had just been copying out the answers and ignoring their professor.

Is this the student's fault for being lazy and cheating? Or is it the professor's for using teaching material that is obsolete and fails to engage the students?

Or, is anyone at fault?

The internet now means questions are no longer recyclable. And while I know many students are more comfortable with the internet than are their professors, that's going to have to change pretty quickly or assignments are going to become obsolete.

Will I post my double review?

I guess we'll see.

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