What does cheating in college have to do with markets for digital goods? More than you might think, and two links connect this weekend’s report from the battlefield between professors and students and a book review by the interesting and insightful jazz critic Devin Leonard.
The cheating story is profoundly depressing; the University of Central Florida has a “testing center” with snooping video cameras, keylogger software, dated scratch paper, and the like, all intended to drive cheating below its current intolerable, flagrant, pervasive rate of … of 14 suspected incidents out of 64,000 exams??!! The article details an arms race between students widely and blithely determined to cheat and professors happily leaping into a technical battle to nail them for it.
What no-one in the story seems to get is how off-the-rails the institution must have gotten for students to believe that the point of college is to submit right answers and get grades. The easiest way to do this, a game that has precisely nothing to do with, um, learning, is to find such answers the fastest way possible (for example, from classmates with whom you divide up a problem set, or on the internet). The pettiness of the colleges’ position is astonishing. For example, and only one: plagiarism, operationally, is copying text, while copying ideas and rephrasing them is not pursued. Should the difference between an A and an F really be rewriting a sentence someone else wrote so Turnitin doesn’t find it? Might students have gotten the idea that parroting the thinking of others is what college is about from profs who reward them for repeating back true propositions they ladled out in lectures? Cheating is a big deal, but responding to it at retail and confrontationally is just wilful blindness to the problem cheating really indicates – and not incidentally, allowing ourselves to play a game of mutual infantilization.
Leonard reviews a biography of Edgar Bronfman, Jr. (who bought Warner Music six years ago [yes, those last three words appear in just that order in Leonard's piece; plagiarism!]) as a frame for reflections about the music industry. This industry, and Leonard, I think, don’t understand the real business of music, just as the colleges have lost touch with their real value creation model. Music executives think they are in business to sell physical objects like CDs, or countable mp3 copies of performances, to listeners, and have chosen to do battle on a field of piracy and sharing suppression. But that business model was an accident of technology history, like the temporary conditions during which newspapers could sell readers to advertisers. The value music companies add to musicians and listeners is search efficiency, helping you find something you will be glad you heard in a universe of possibilities you don’t have time to begin to browse in, but they are leaving that whole territory, the only one in which they can conceivably survive, to peripheral players like Pandora and Rhapsody because they are too scared, or maybe just too dumb, I guess, to really think how they can monetize that service. Leonard, by the way, correctly recognizes that this mental straitjacket has not only cost the labels and artists a lot of money, but also impoverished consumers with “all Lady Gaga all the time”.
A big problem for them, of course, is the universal implicit recognition by music listeners that a digital recording is a non-rival good: because there’s no less of it for anyone else if I copy a song for you, “it just doesn’t feel like stealing” and in fact its efficient price is zero, its marginal cost. Of course their response to this recognition has been spectacularly dysfunctional and maladaptive, suing downloaders and messing with hopeless DRM technologies. This divide between the moral stance and perceptions of provider and customer matches what’s happening in the colleges: students are comfortable finding useful stuff on the whole internet and, I think, have a sense of the non-rival property of all digital discourse, including text, close to the way they see recordings.
And they have a point: grownups in any workplace do not write closed-book memos with ballpoints in bluebooks, sitting in a room with cops watching to be sure they don’t learn anything from anyone else: they vacuum up everything they can get from peers, media, and the like to find a solution to a problem they know they have. Of course, it’s wrong – and known to be wrong – to steal that work from the guy in the next cubicle and offer it as your own. But as Lauren Resnick immortally observed, “collaboration in a workplace is essential and rewarded; collaboration in school is cheating and punished.” Students know this and it doesn’t help the college to get up on a soapbox and preach; the students see a lot of the hoops they are expected to jump through as unrealistic artificial exercises set to maximize the comfort of a bunch of stuffed shirts from another era, not to enable them (the students) to create value in the world. Possibly excepting those very few who will create value as professors, but almost no students are baby professors, or apprentice professors. If we don’t learn to discern intellectual merit among our students (and other kinds – Howard Gardner describes eight kinds of intelligence, of which maybe three will help your grades the way we operate now) in a more adult and realistic fashion, we are fighting the wrong war with the wrong weapons on the wrong field against the wrong ‘enemy’.