Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dumbassification 2.0

This may be ill-advised, but I'm not going to let Steve and Adam off the hook by retreating to the idea that Adam's piece (or the at least the most ridiculous parts of it) were meant to be "tongue-in-cheek" or that it merely presents what Steve calls "a transhumanist reductio of the increasing identification of academic authority with the catching of cheaters". Maybe that is how it was intended, I don't know. But it seems to me to be much easier to it read as a piece that argues for the identification of intelligence with the ability to retrieve information, i.e., "getting the right answer", and the further (surely transhumanist) celebration of the ability of new technologies to "augment" this ability and, indeed, render the memorization of known facts obsolete as a life skill.

Most charitably, I take him to be saying that an exam that requires memorization is somehow "daring" students to use their smartphones instead of actually memorizing the required material and, importantly, that having a mind that can actually remember facts is so, you know, "1.0". I don't think Adam is making fun of these ideas. I think he's promoting them, whether he thinks so or not.

I don't know how else to take the following:

This is the age of augmented cognition, or the extended mind. When teachers ask a student to put away her cell phone or iPad before the exam is handed out, it is like asking her to put away her occipital lobe or her frontal cortex.

Is this a joke? Is it supposed to mock the whining student who makes this claim? If so, I'm with Adam, but I just don't see how it can be read that way in context. As Steve makes clear, the argument is that something important changed with the invention of the smartphone: "the stuff you’re discriminating is now located outside rather than inside your head – the ‘mind’s eye’ has been effectively distributed between you and the ‘cloud’." And this means, as Adam says, that to ask students to function without their phones is like asking them to function without some part of their brain.

But surely nothing has radically changed. Some stuff remains inside the head (the result of years of experience and study) and some of it remains outside (in the "library", however virtual it may now be). Examination is the means by which we find out how well the student can use what's inside, sometimes (but not always) by putting it in relation to what's outside, but always (and not just sometimes) by showing us what was inside at the time of examination. The "augmentation" of the mind has been going on since the invention of writing and the abacus, and at each stage of development, examiners have had to distinguish between the not very impressive ability of a student to merely look something up, or plug something into a calculating device, and the much more impressive accomplishment of having internalized a part of their own heritage. Adam's piece (and especially Steve's comment) is suggesting that the game has now radically shifted and that all that needs to be known can be "instantly and ubiquitously" looked up. Therefore all we should be examining is the ability of students to do that.

But a mind that can actually retain three or four hundred relevant facts for the purpose of passing an exam is demonstrating a far more important ability than this information retrieval skill ever was or will be. And also a more important ability than memorization as such. Again, Adam may just be mocking a position when he says this:

The brain doesn’t obey the boundaries of the skull, so why do students need to cram knowledge into their heads? All they need in their local wetware are the instructions for accessing the extended mind. This is not cheating, it is simply the reality of being plugged into the hive mind. Indeed, why waste valuable mental space on information stored in the hive?

If all he's doing here is mocking some imagined smart-ass student, I'm with him. But, again, I can't get his piece to read like that. If I do, the whole thing becomes satire (which is a possibility I explicitly considered, and then rejected "for the sake of argument"). And to think that a course and a subsequent test that values memorization is calling for students merely to "cram knowledge into their heads" simply fails to recognize the value of a having a mind that can actually retain facts (regardless of how important the individual facts are).

The sensible view is to treat smartphones, and the "cloud" to which they are connected, like we have treated books and calculators in the past: sometimes they are allowed and sometimes they are forbidden. The bar for the exam is set accordingly. And cheating remains what it always was: the unauthorized use of a technology or technique for the purpose of passing an examination.

I'm going to write one more post on this. I think I'm now obliged to go after Farhad Manjoo's denialism of the cheating scandal at Harvard on the grounds that they were merely "collaborating".

* * *

[Update: Jonathan brings us the good news in parable form.

Update 2: I just found the source of the title concept in The New Yorker. Fittingly, it was part of Chuck D's message to college students.]


JBritt said...

Leaving aside the question of whether you are correctly interpreting Adam's argument, it is trivially true to claim that cheating is breaking the rules, once the rules are set. It is another thing to question whether the rules that are set ought to be the rules.

Obviously, students who are told they cannot use anything other than their own brains during a test are breaking the rules if they resort to their smartphones -- in other words, they are guilty of cheating. It only becomes interesting when we allow ourselves to get out of the frame of rule-following and start to seek the rules that ought to apply in situations in which the technology has advanced to the point that calling such behavior cheating sounds questionable.

I take Adam's point to be: we have reached that point. We ought to seek the rules that fit our new situation, rather than simply falling back on following the old rules. That is a challenge for the educators to meet.

Thomas said...

Keep in mind that I'm arguing that what Adam is saying (or at least the position I'm attributing to Adam) is nonsense. The standard way of combating nonsense is to invoke trivial truths (with which the nonsense conflicts.)

What you're saying now sounds like saying closed-book exams became questionable with the invention of the book. Actually, the opposite is true. The existence of books made it necessary to invent a rule against opening them under certain (exam) conditions. The same applies here.

JBritt said...

It's a weird sort of technological determinism that would hold that the existence of books made it *necessary* to invent a rule against opening them during a test!

Books may be a necessary condition for rules against opening books during tests, but the existence of books is hardly sufficient for such a rule. In fact, we have a choice about that rule, and open-book exams of all sorts do exist -- despite the existence of books!

Similarly, the existence of smartphones does not in and of itself justify creating a rule against their use on exams. You need another claim, something like: allowing students to use smartphones on an exam will prevent us from assessing what the students have learned.

But this extra claim entails an idea of learning that reduces it to memorization of facts. It's that last claim we should be discussing.

Thomas said...

I'm not saying we shouldn't have open-phone exams. But Adam is saying that we should not have closed-phone exams. Likewise, I'm not reducing learning to memorization. Adam is excluding memorization from the task of learning. He and Steve are saying it's no longer relevant because of the invention of the smartphone.

This is what I mean by the closed-book comparison. I'm not denying that we have open-book exams; of course we do. I'm just appealing to the familiar rationale for sometimes requiring that students close their books. That rationale continues to apply when we consider their phones.

And just as the existence of books means we have to worry about plagiarism, so too does the existence of the internet. It's the very same problem. There's nothing new or game-changing about this technology.

That's the trivial truth that Adam's post is questioning. And that's what I think is nonsense.

When students use their smartphones to look up answers on an exam it is just like smuggling a cheat-sheet in. Of course, it's only cheating on the particular exams where there's a rule against it. All I'm doing is defending that rule, i.e., that kind of exam. You and Adam and Steve are saying that the place of the smartphone in the student's life makes the rule untenable. Nonsense! I say.

Knowing facts is no more a "waste [of] valuable mental space" since the invention of the internet than it was since the invention of the public library. That's precisely because intelligence is not merely information retrieval. Learning is not merely memorization, but it is a very important part of it.

Z said...

My students have been taught to memorize set answers that they do not understand or know how to use, and they are fine with this.

They resist memorizing facts or acquiring a system, and then using that.

Jonathan said...

My daughter last week had to memorize the first 11 lines of the Aeneid in Latin for a quiz. Some kids in the back row were copying down the text from their smart phones, unnoticed by the teacher. Now whether it is useful to memorize 11 lines of Latin poetry is up for debate (I think it is useful!). But clearly not memorizing and copying it onto paper from a phone is defeating the purpose of the quiz.

Spinoff said...

I think an important thing is missing here. It has more or less been established by now that the problem of phones/tablets/whatever-gizmos are somewhat akin to the problem of books in relation to certain types of testing of learning outcome: If students are allowed to use them, how can we score the test, if the purpose is to test e.g. "knowledge".

Setting aside the problem of defining "knowledge" and which type of situation calls upon testing it, it should be clear that internet-connected devices impose a somewhat "new" problem. We know of it, however, from the play “Cyrano de Bergerac”, where Cyrano uses the young Christian as a proxy for his romantic declarations towards an unsuspecting Roxane. Similarly the new technology makes it hard to tell what or who it is we are testing, if no restrictions are made. It is not only fact-searching that is made possible now, it is the complete intellectual powers of any number of people (and devices) that can be implored in answering any kind of test, not just the fact-checking ones, but as well the type of test that requires e.g. academic argumentation. As in e.g. a dissertation.

So, yes indeed, it is not the individual’s skills, knowledge and so on that is tested. It is his network. And since network in many instances can translate into money (or if you wish to go with Bourdieu: Capital), why even bother?

This is why, to me, it makes perfect sense to have a couple of “closed devices” exams during any educational programme: It is a way stopping people from just “buying” their degree.

Thomas said...

Yes, in Denmark, the formal purpose of the PhD defense, which is a public event, is not to test the candidate's knowledge (which the dissertation has already demonstrated), but to ensure that the candidate is, indeed, the author of the dissertation, and not another Christian to some shadowy Cyrano. If the candidate were allowed to confer with their smartphone about every question, this test would not work.

In the UK, I'm told, the viva is a much more intense and detailed (and some would say more serious) affair. Here the student must demonstrate a mastery of the materials beyond being able to put together the dissertation.

As I like to say, knowing is the ability to hold your own in a conversation with knowledgeable peers. The meaning of the words "your own", I guess, is what we're discussing.