Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Payoffs and Pitfalls

I am taking advantage of the generosity of Stanford University and professors Matthew Jackson and Yoav Shoham by participating in the free Game Theory course currently being offered.  While the course is well outside my comfort zone and admittedly passing it may be a challenge – I am enjoying the mental stretch.  At its most basic level, game theory looks at payoffs of action.  The action a player takes will result in positive or negative payoffs making the likelihood of the action predicable via some math that I have a very tenuous grasp of… but I digress.

While the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Predator/Prey games are interesting, I find myself applying the idea of payoff versus pitfall to my world of educational technology - particularly the recurrent discussion that students will use technology to cheat.  The previous post on Block Down focused on blocking due to uncertainly of change in a new educational landscape.  But what about those who block for the seemingly nurturing reason of providing honest education?  Venturing into the waters of assessment here…

Let’s think of it in terms of game theory.  Student A is assigned to write a paper on the thematic elements of Moby Dick.  Student A has choices of the actions she might take: she can read the novel or read the summaries found online; she can annotate the novel indicating thematic elements or Google “thematic elements of Moby Dick” and pick three of the 496,000 entries that come up; she can write the paper or she can copy/paste information found in those 496,000 entries…

The perceived payoffs are what will determine the ultimate action.  The basic way payoff is often looked at is getting caught or not getting caught.  Educators love to focus on the crime and punishment element of cheating, but that’s only part of the issue.  I would argue criminal intent is not the immediate consideration of Student A.  What is - is the payoff of better use of time.  If the assessment is perceived as a waste of time, inconsequential to personal context, then why put any time or energy into the product?  Assessments which ask for responses easily Googled are just as easily brushed aside as a waste of time.  The payoff of taking the shortcut is suddenly shifted in the favor of cheating.  Softball practice, friends, heck – even science homework on frog dissection is a better use of time!

What can educators do? 
·         First, take a look at the questions we ask
True synthesis occurs when Student A is asked to take a concept (say the thematic elements of water in Moby Dick) and propose new 21st century concepts that could replace or replicate the theme (create a new thematic element of human helplessness in a 21st century landscape).  Listing thematic elements, even if one is asked to briefly describe, are low Comprehension Bloom’s and it’s time to move on.
·         Second, take a look at our crime and punishment model.
Take a deep breath and really reflect on the crime of cheating.  The harm done is personal to the student.  They have missed an opportunity to learn and explore their world.  That is sad, unfortunate… insert descriptive noun here.  It’s not a personal affront to you the educator.    
·         Third, it’s not about the technology used.
We never banned an encyclopedia volume when Student B copied the entire “Volcano” entry in 1976.  The encyclopedia was not to blame and neither is Google. Blocking sites in the name of cheating prevention helps no one and limits valuable educational experiences (collaborative Google Doc anyone?).

Rather than blame technology, engaged educators need to look at our assessments.  Are we asking questions that can easily be answered in a Google search?  Are we assessing skill and drill content knowledge or challenging our students with synthesis and evaluation level work?  Reflect on the payoff to the student for really engaging the assessment material… and share that payoff with the students. The payoff for time, effort and care should not be a secret.  When we stop blaming technology for cheating… and look at payoffs and pitfalls of action – I truly believe our assessments will improve and student learning will improve along with it. 

Now I need to go an finish my Game Theory quiz….

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