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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

#openschools: the Swartz dilemma

“computer lab – 4th grade” by woodleywonderworks

You run a tech-infused classroom. Kids do all sorts of work on the computer from reading fluency practice to released test items to word processing to new- and multi-media projects in response to class texts. You’ve scrounged up a bunch of unsupported computers from past replacement cycles in your building, and your tech person has let those machines on to the school network so that you have 20 or so computers online in your room. Your principal shows other administrators, school board members, and prospective parents and students your room whenever visitors get a tour of the school. You run an after school club through which kids use a popular sandbox game to collaborate on a social justice topographical model of their hometown color-coded to education and income levels.

From time to time everyone in your class is on a computer at once. Sometimes, to make sure you have enough computers, you have to sign out a rolling cart of laptops or even let a student use yours during class. After all, that school-issued laptop you take home every night is expressly expected to serve students, and you do get some cred for letting kids use your laptop, which is generations ahead of the machines you’ve gathered in your room. Other teachers never let the kids touch their computers.

Today is one of those busy days on the machines. The end of the marking period is in three days. The kids have a big multi-media project due – maybe you should have planned for another day or two of work, but here we are. You’ve been underlining the end of the marking period as a deadline for the project to motivate kids to finish. Also, they’ve been working on the project long enough that you feel you need a grade from it to bolster up your gradebook.

Busy is good. This is one of those days when suddenly you realize there’s nothing for you to do for that minute or two during which every kid is engaged at work. You look around and kind of marvel at these kids. You are proud of them. You are proud of yourself. These projects will be awesome. They will be done on time. You will show a few to your principal on your way out of school on the workday coming up for finishing report cards online.

You lock up your room at the end of the day and walk out of the building feeling great. This is teaching, you remember.

That night you get a DM from a co-worker (one of those colleagues who friends students on social media although you would never cross that line). It’s a screen shot of a Facebook update from one of your students, including a link titled “All of our English tests for the rest of the year.” You open a browser – the one you teach kids to use – and type in the URL from the screenshot. It’s a sprawling cloud doc holding all of the tests from the book unit folders you keep in your class folder on the desktop of your computer.

Several anonymous users are on the doc crowdsourcing the answers.

You remember the kid who used your computer that day – the one who was a part of that symphony of engagement you conducted in class through the work you designed and delivered to your students. You remember that episode of Freaks and Geeks when Daniel steals the algebra test.

What happens next?

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About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.

Discussion

15 thoughts on “#openschools: the Swartz dilemma

  1. Give the kid an “A+”, or an ultra-high assessment, for truly learning to game the game and allowing other students to learn how the game is played? (I wonder if those anonymous ones are learning while crowdsourcing the answers…I wonder if this was part of the teacher’s plan…)

    Posted by Brent Snavely | January 15, 2013, 10:21 am
    • That’s one of my impulses, too, pushed against the inability of the system to see what has happened as both a “game” and somewhat trivial depending on the nature of the questions. If the questions are fact-based, why be upset the answer are found? If the questions are deeply engaging, why be upset kids are thinking about them early?

      Primarily, I worry about propping up any belief system that legitimizes holding kids back because a teacher isn’t ready to do something when the kids are.

      Thanks for your reading, comment, and continued engagement and support, Brent –
      C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | January 15, 2013, 1:27 pm
  2. this now becomes the curriculum.

    Posted by Tim McClung | January 15, 2013, 10:47 am
    • Yeah – an open one if it was already the closed one. Depending on the questions and answers, that could open up a bunch of discussions at once or make some low-value work moot.

      Given Niki’s comments below, what do you see as the social curriculum here?

      Best,
      C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | January 15, 2013, 1:28 pm
  3. That sucks and you feel betrayed.

    Posted by Alfonso Gonzalez (@educatoral) | January 15, 2013, 11:09 am
    • In writing the scenario, and even in believing that this would turn out okay for all in many ways, I imagined feeling that, too. Certainly there’s some disappointment involved. I’m thinking about where it’s located and how it moves between the teacher-student relationship and the teacher-system relationship in which sometimes perceived “losses” of “power” make teachers feel frustrated and out of control.

      Thanks for reading this and offering up that sincere response –
      C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | January 15, 2013, 1:31 pm
  4. Sorry, but, why is this called “the Swartz dilemma”? Other than the kid in question being very computer savvy, this scenario has almost nothing in common with Swartz and his activities.

    Swartz’s motives for liberating the data that he did were to make what should have been public data more easily accessible to the public. His actions had the intended goal of *facilitating* learning. They weren’t tests answers, they were research documents.

    The situation described above, in which a student accesses English tests (not exploiting the system that has anything to do with the current project but using it to jump left & find answers to unrelated tests), describes someone who is using these techniques to *avoid* learning.

    A closer analogy would have been that the there were digital textbooks on the server and the student posted those. As educators, it’s important to recognize modern techniques for learning and demonstrating skill, but cheating is still a thing. What you describe above is cheating. Sure, it’s skillful cheating, but it’s still cheating. It breaks a social code whereas Swartz was upholding one.

    Frankly I find it somewhat offensive that this post is coming so soon after Swartz’s suicide and the ensuing media attention to his story. Seems a bit exploitative.

    Posted by Niki | January 15, 2013, 11:18 am
    • Niki, thanks for your feedback.

      In my mind, I wonder what the difference is between students finding the questions and providing the answers for themselves and waiting for a teacher to deliver content and assess them on it. Is the flow rate of learning best managed by teachers and an educational system designed to distribute learning through a rolling set of gates (lessons, units, tests), or by students’ quest for information. I don’t see a literal, 1:1 relationship between this scenario and Swartz’s activities, but I do see “public” works – tests written by a teacher on a public machine about a public curriculum – the answers to which sometimes exist already inside standards and certainly online – accessed without permission, and I wonder how schools are prepared to deal with students who want to go faster than a teacher or pacing guide or curriculum and to get information when they want it.

      Is it cheating to find the answers on your own instead of waiting for someone to tell you you can have them?

      I’m sorry you find this exploitative. I find it a daily conundrum in my work and one that Swartz’s death has problematized further for me.

      All the best,
      C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | January 15, 2013, 11:58 am
      • >> I wonder what the difference is between students finding the questions and providing the answers for themselves and waiting for a teacher to deliver content and assess them on it.

        Remove computers from the equation. What would the answer to that question be if a student stole a paper copy off of a teacher’s desk, shared it with a few friends who looked up the answers, and then distributed the questions & answers to the rest of the class?

        >> Is it cheating to find the answers on your own instead of waiting for someone to tell you you can have them?

        No, but that’s not the scenario you described. You described a situation where they found the *questions* on their own. In an environment where the questions on a test are a subset of total learning material, attempting to narrow or eliminate that learning by focusing only on the questions & answers you know will be used in your evaluation is (at least in my estimation) cheating.

        Also, students weren’t finding the answers on their own. They were crowd-sourcing them. That means that some students are answering a few questions, while others are just receiving the benefits of their work.

        I mentioned social contract above. Students should be made aware that there is an expectation of honesty involved in open learning, as in any other learning environment. Just because the mechanism (copying a file vs. slipping a piece of paper into your bag) is more technologically advanced doesn’t mean that breaking that contract suddenly has merit.

        In my mind there are two major disconnects here: 1) a very modern learning environment (open learning) coupled with dated student evaluations techniques (closed tests), and 2) a muddying of the line between displaying technical proficiency with learning proficiency. Please don’t let your admiration for a student’s computing skills overshadow your expectation that they behave in an honorable fashion.

        To answer the question you initial posed, here’s what I believe might happen next:

        – Student who did the hacking is privately commended for his computing & networking skills, and given tougher, related assignments to keep him motivated & learning. He is also privately reprimanded for attempting to circumvent the learning process by opening up the test to crowd-sourcing.
        – The teacher explains the incident to the class and why it basically invalidates the test and creates a major inconvenience to teacher, instructional designers, and facilitators.
        – A new set of tests is created and administered in a way that guarantees all students are contributing their own thoughts/ their own work. Perhaps it’s a group discussion or group assignment where students are evaluating themselves and each other. Perhaps the idea of a series of English tests is dated, and students are evaluated based on their participation throughout the year and unique works of their own creation. In any event, the test material might be “open” such that ideally, it doesn’t matter when students consume the information.

        Posted by Niki | January 15, 2013, 12:35 pm
        • Niki, thanks for the on-going dialogue.

          I’m not as confident as you are in usefulness of the distinctions you make between desk and digital and between crowd-sourcing and kids (plural) finding information on their own. Is how we’ve worked in schools how we should work? Is individual effort something we can’t envision inside crowdsourcing? Is how we have worked the best way to work for the future given where we are as a society?

          Also, as per the social contract, I don’t believe that the way we privilege adult control in schools is a beneficial social contract for kids – this is a principal concern of mine as an educator here and elsewhere, so I hope that goes some way in why I’m thinking about the connections between how schools limit information and Swartz’s work. Couldn’t that student be honoring struggling kids through publishing the test questions? Does enforcing the status quo, as an educator, make for honorable behavior towards students? These are big questions. I suspect we have some common ground in how we would answer them.

          I agree with your assessments of the disconnects – though in daily practice I’m just as happy with kids making with cardboard (or any other medium) as with digital technology. Anything that involves kids in active decision making, learning, and making, without undue regard for the usual regulators’ notions of schooling.

          Thanks for offering your take on the consequences, as well –

          Continued best regards,
          C

          Posted by Chad Sansing | January 15, 2013, 12:51 pm
        • >> I’m not as confident as you are in usefulness of the distinctions you make between desk and digital and between crowd-sourcing and kids (plural) finding information on their own. Is how we’ve worked in schools how we should work? Is how we’ve worked in schools how we should work?

          I’m actually saying that there isn’t much of a distinction. Open information is open whether it’s paper or digital. If you’re following an open schooling philosophy, it should be embraced wholesale so that students & teachers alike are all fully aware of expectations, limits, etc. In other words, the English test would have been public knowledge to begin with, so it would be a non-issue.

          I’m not sure what expectations were set before the described scenario, so I’ll adress the 3 possibilities I can imagine:

          1) The sandbox environment/open curriculum didn’t extend to the English curriculum, but the students thought that it did.
          – There’s been a failure on the part of teachers & administration to set appropriate expectations for the students.

          2) The sandbox environment/open curriculum didn’t extend to the English curriculum, and the students knew that it didn’t.
          – They’ve broken an implied agreement between student and educator and would benefit from appropriate consequences. (This is the assumption I’d made in my comment above.) Maybe this incident serves as a wake up call to administration that an open environment would be better in many ways. Go head and change the environment (e.g., 100% open information at all times), but don’t make it retro-active.

          3) The sandbox environment DOES extend to the English curriculum; the test and evaluation had been intended to be open.
          – Great! Then the students are doing what was expected of them, earlier than it was expected, and should be commended and rewarded for their efforts. (How something like this provides evaluation and feedback I don’t know, but that’s a different point of discussion.)

          >> Is individual effort something we can’t envision inside crowdsourcing?

          There’s a difference between recognizing crowdsourcing as a collection of individual efforts, and being able to evaluate and provide feedback on the efforts of individuals. Or to put it another way: what is the goal of giving an English test– to produce an English paper or to evaluate an individual’s English proficiency? Crowdsourcing is a great way to complete a project; to arrive at some singular outcome. But in my mind, the purpose of education is to produce students who are equipped to function in the real world to their maximum potential. Sure, part of that means being able to contribute to a group effort, but part of it also means being able to put together a proper English sentence. Some things can’t be learned by participating in a crowdsource project, and not every attempt at turning a test or curriculum into one is necessarily a good idea.

          >> Also, as per the social contract, I don’t believe that the way we privilege adult control in schools is a beneficial social contract for kids – this is a principal concern of mine as an educator here and elsewhere, so I hope that goes some way in why I’m thinking about the connections between how schools limit information and Swartz’s work.

          The social contract I refer to isn’t really about adult control. It’s more about self-control and trust. If a student were to hack into another student’s computer and read their work, it’s just as much of a breach of trust, perhaps even moreso, as if done to a teacher.

          >> Does enforcing the status quo, as an educator, make for honorable behavior towards students?

          It helps to have a common understand between student and teacher of what honorable behavior is, which goes back to setting expectations and being consistent about them. I think that choosing consequences based on an open schooling philosophy for actions taken in a previously-understood-to-be-closed environment would just be confusing.

          Thanks for asking these questions and for the discussion.

          Posted by Niki | January 15, 2013, 3:20 pm
        • Thank you for all your care in responding and unpacking the scenario, Niki – I hope you’ll continue to comment – and perhaps even post re: #openschools – on the Coöp.

          With gratitude,
          C

          Posted by Chad Sansing | January 15, 2013, 3:29 pm
  5. I have a new policy of not commenting on blog posts or on-line articles, but I made an exception since this one is so interesting.

    I think there are two (separate) things to address here:

    1) You trusted your student with your laptop and your student violated your trust and also shared documents that were your work. If I were you, I’d have a conversation with this student, and actually all of your students about this–about trust and the consequences of violating trust.

    Furthermore, if they have questions about the assessments you use or feel that they aren’t good learning/teaching tools or that there’s some unfairness to your way of assessing, then that’s a conversation they should bring to you and that they have a right to have with you. But doing what the student did is not the way to go about getting those concerns addressed.

    2) Use this as a teaching tool (for content!) Publishing the tests and crowd sourcing the answers (if the questions are meaningful and initiate knowledge-based, complex thinking), meaning answering the questions as a group may actually be a great learning exercise. You could think about giving your test questions out in advance and having the students crowd source and then discuss the answers. You’d give feedback and then you could give them an assessment with similar questions. Perhaps their thinking on whatever topic or question will have evolved after considering their classmates’ thoughts and your feedback.

    Posted by Rachel Levy | January 15, 2013, 10:16 pm
    • Rachel, thank you so much for making an exception here. I do want to say that while I have had things stolen over the years, this is a control-of-information scenario that represents for me a whole collection of philosophical and structural concerns regarding school, rather than a description of a single event.

      I really appreciate your reply because 1) the discussion you suggest having is one I suspect we should have with all of our kids about teaching, learning, and change in our society and schools, and 2) I think you are right on in your second point – opening up assessment to a broader range of student problem-solving strategies serves them better than testing as we test.

      With great thanks for your presence here,
      C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | January 16, 2013, 5:04 am
  6. For folks concerned about the vehicle of my piece, here’s part one of a legal analysis regarding Aaron Swartz’s prosecution:

    “Towards Learning from Losing Aaron Swartz”.

    I think the piece captures the real tenor of my concerns, which go beyond the specifics of any one activity from Swartz’s life and have more to do with the role or schools in a closing society. For example, I am concerned about “punishing access in excess of authorization” in schools where “excess of authorization” is determined by adults with economic interest in maintaining power over kids, as I am concerned about the ways schools use “prosecutorial discretion” in dealing with all students, as well as with specific groups of students .

    I’m not really trying to make the case here that this kid and Aaron Swartz did similar things, I’m asking about what happens and what should happen in our system of public education when kids access information ahead of when the system is scheduled to deliver it to them. I didn’t put a rider like this in the post because I hoped for – and have received and continue to hope for – a diversity of opinions and interpretations about what went wrong when in the scenario and how it could resolve. What does freedom of information mean in schools? Limiting access? The punishment of reckless acts by kids? The life and loss of Aaron Swartz have me thinking of these issues non-stop this week; I want to keep thinking about them; I want to know what you think and what you are doing, as well.

    Thank you all for the comments and push.

    Best regards,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 16, 2013, 5:58 am

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