Has Technology Complicated Our Definition of Cheating?

I ran across this article in the NY Times yesterday morning about the rise of cheating in Computer Science classes at top universities across the country. The article itself is interesting, but the comment section is even more so: technological development seems to have complicated some people’s definition of cheating.

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My experience with Computer Science is relegated to making a little robot dance on my family’s first (and only) computer growing up: a Texas Instruments computer. The code was in the manual, probably intended to be an example of what you could write that might result in something cool; to me it was simply something to copy in order to pass the time while I enviously imagined my friends playing Mario Brothers on their Ataris. Needless to say, I didn’t end up in Silicon Valley. BUT, I did end up at WordPress and while my marketing duties don’t require me to understand code, I do understand its incredible impact.

The internet attracts its fair share of criticisms – contributes to rising childhood obesity rates, dissuades meaningful communication, compromises privacy, etc. – but among many other undeniable benefits is access. Different people, organizations and companies have different rules and perspectives when it comes to access, and inevitably those rules and perspectives will continue to change over time, but access to just about anything we want is available to us if we’re willing to play ball with whomever has that particular “thing.” One thing coders have access to is code others have written via Open Source, which they can play with, change and re-shape for their own purposes and for the good of the rest of the Open Source community. As 27% of the internet runs on WordPress.org (an Open Source project), every single one of us is benefiting from code-copying by developers all around the world. It’s not considered cheating unless the virtual handshake agreement to reference your source code, is broken.

The importance of references is something we learn as early as elementary school: footnotes and endnotes and all that fun stuff. Once we get a bit older and understand the importance of citing sources, not doing so can result in failing grades or worse, accusations of plagiarism, depending on the situation. Certainly a good lesson to learn before we graduate and are thrown into the world of business, as powerpoint decks full of convincing charts and stats are considered useless unless sources are cited. But worse than being unsuccessful in making an argument due to sloppy referencing is having your character questioned if you’re caught passing off someone else’s work for your own. Of course the easiest way to avoid an embarrassing, or perhaps critically damaging situation, is to give credit where it’s due.

We are all products of our families, our surroundings, each other. Yes, we are all unique, but none of us is simply just us; every idea or point of view we have, and every decision we make has been developed through our experiences and is inspired by others. In some cases, because of the unlimited access we have to information via the internet, we may not be able to pinpoint exactly how and where our thoughts have materialized, but in many cases we do. Copying code, even in cases when it is then manipulated to create something new, is one of those obvious cases – not only is sourcing the right thing to do, but it helps the next guy learn and likely improve on it, which in turn helps the rest of us. In business situations where you’re talking ideas, theories and strategies, the line is much fuzzier, and yet I’d argue people still know what they’re doing when they’re teetering on the brink. In this case, sharing credit is the appropriate approach, e.g. “so and so had this really cool idea a few months back and I think it’s more applicable now given where we are so I’ve decided to resurface it.” In fact, more often than not, a referenced source or inspiration can contribute even more credence to an idea or argument. And if that isn’t enough, it just simply feels good to be honest.

I don’t believe technology has complicated the definition of cheating. If anything, it has just expanded the excuse pool. But cheating is cheating. And you know when you’re doing it. Perhaps this Computer Science curriculum the article focused on should be re-imagined to better reflect real world scenarios as some of the comments suggested. But regardless of whether code-copying is real world practice is irrelevant. That wasn’t the test. And taking credit for work that isn’t yours will eventually catch up to you.

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