Two big industries that don’t understand their business

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’.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

15 thoughts on “Two big industries that don’t understand their business”

  1. This is sort of a yesbut response – Mike, have you ever taught at a tier 3 or below school? CalState Sonoma, or Merritt Jr College, or Directional State U? There's a huge problem, I think, of which this is one of the manifestations (6 blind men describe an elephant) where schools have become mechanisms for delivering credentials. When someone is a teacher, and she gets a $6000 raise, which goes on forever, if she completes the course work for a master's degree at Directional State – or a firefighter, or a middle manager at an insurance company – love of learning is not central here. And the school has diminished value as a credential granter if (think BU in the 80s) it is regularly sniggered at for bought papers, etc.

    I'm with you, that Directional State is not doing community of scholars. I like, and thrived in, and want my kids to have, community of scholars. When you load onto the tasks of Directional State, along with high school remediation and imparting knowledge, certification that someone really does know calculus – it's a problem. If and when the schools figure out ways to decide who is a higher-compensation-eligible teacher other than 'has taken twelve courses post-baccalaureate at Directional State no grade below 'c'' then grade grubbing will diminish. Until that day, it's a problem.

  2. Michael O'Hare: "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)."

    Dave Schutz, above, is absolutely right. The vast majority of colleges are credentialling institutions, not learning institutions. The students aren't there for love of knowledge; they are there to buy a credential that will allow them entry into the middle class.

    College cheating is in large part a result of the dysfunctional manner in which society has set up college as a gatekeeper. Everyone, from the President of the United States down to parents and peers, tells these students that a college degree is essential. Employers won't hire people for anything above "Would you like fries with that?" without a bachelor's degree. And we're surprised when students put in this high-stakes situation decide to take shortcuts?

    Not everyone can, or should, be a college graduate. We need to bring back well-paid, dignified blue-collar work in this country. And we need to stop demanding a largely irrelevant college degree for entry-level white collar jobs.

  3. While you are essentially right about the particulars, a book could be written about what is wrong with your attitude. A short list which might or might not make sense to you:

    1. minimum tuition charges for degrees.

    2. programs churning out Ph.D.s with few or any job prospects.

    3. IRBs

    4. drug abuse of the best and the brightest (ritalin, concerta, modafinil)

    5. refusal to allow recording or publishing of lectures

    6. peer review

    7. journal subscription pricing

    8. Tenure

    and on and on.

    In all seriousness, I think UCF understands its mission better than you understand UCLA's mission. Gatekeeper is the perfect word.

  4. I'd like Michael to explain how to teach Fluid Dynamics (or other science and engineering courses) without "reward them for repeating back true propositions they ladled out in lectures"?

  5. "The students aren’t there for love of knowledge; they are there to buy a credential that will allow them entry into the middle class."

    But has this ever not been the case? Sure, love of learning might be part of it – we all can dream! – but students are as rationally self-interested as the rest of us, *and* young, with still-developing identities who have little experience in the real world.

    The idea that colleges (or K-12, for that matter) should be instilling a love of learning has little to do with who the students are, but what they should be being exposed to and asked to think about. So even as they are plotting world-domination (or, at least a cozy white collar salary), we should be trying to encourage enlightenment.

    So, I'm not sure that student attitudes have really shifted so much, including their proclivities toward cheating, but that technology has simply made it easier. And to the extent that they have, I'm less inclined to think it's because we have devalued universities as institutions of enlightenment and come to see them as degree mills, than that society has just shifted in other ways.

    I'd be interested to hear from other professors who've been teaching long enough to notice whether they've seen any dramatic change in student attitudes, and to what they might attribute this.

  6. Let's see… hands-on experience doing the minimum needed to buy credentials in a surveillance state?

    Sounds like they are getting important training to me.

  7. 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.

    Undergraduate grades influence admissions to graduate programs, including yours, I suspect. They also influence law and medicine and business schools admissions. Further, undergraduate admissions relies heavily on high school grades. The university is constantly sending the message that grades are crucially important. Why shouldn't students believe it?

  8. I find that it's incredibly easy to teach courses with nothing but collaborative assignments, provided you're not too interested in how equally the students are dividing up the work. I.e., you're not worried about Student A doing 90% of the assignment (including all of the clever bits) and Student B just going through the motions. Student B might even learn a thing or two, though in some cases he'll tune out and learn as little as possible to do his 10%.

    Still, sometimes it's rewarding to know that Student B is leaving your class with more than this. The question is: if you have the ability to make this happen (or happen to a greater extent than it would otherwise) by introducing some non-collaborative assignments, then do you have an obligation to do so? Or is it up to the student to bring that motivation?

  9. I think M. Green is on the right track here (see the link in my second comment above). There is some paradox in the proposition that we can't properly discriminate among students through collaborative work, while all well-managed organizations that are not schools somehow manage to promote and reward workers with heavy emphasis on collaboration and teamwork, and without ever giving invigilated sit-down exams. Police and fire departments promoting through civil service exams are not well-managed in this dimension.

  10. "while all well-managed organizations that are not schools somehow manage to promote and reward workers with heavy emphasis on collaboration and teamwork, and without ever giving invigilated sit-down exams"

    (a) In these "well-managed organizations" we usually have a manager looking over the behavior of, what, maybe ten to thirty people, with whom the manager interacts for many hours a week over a long period of time; and that oversight is a substantial part of what the manager is paid to do. Of course we could replicate that model at colleges — if we were willing to quadruple the teaching staff.

    (b) On the other hand, schools do match this model to a large extent. However you and I both know that in 21st century America there is no way a school is going to be allowed to have its teachers offer up grades (or whatever equivalent you want to call them — tokens that determine whether a student moves on, and which certify that student's ability to perform certain tasks) on the basis of what they have seen and heard from the student ("subjective" criteria) as opposed to exams and other "objective" criteria. One round of this and every student with a grade less than A+ will be part of a class action suit full of statements about how pretty girls are treated better than homely girls, tall boys are perceived as more competent than short boys, teacher hates Joe because Joe has made his contempt for Christians (like teacher) obvious, etc etc.

    And truth is, those class action suits will have a lot of justification. The fact that things are done a certain way in the business world is hardly proof that that's the one best way. Is being tall REALLY an important qualification for being a CEO? Are all those complaints about how the people promoted are the ass-kissers and the ruthless rather than the competent really without foundation? Is there nothing to the Peter Principle?

  11. Responding to Eli: Yesterday I completed my retirement after 42 years of university teaching, the last 34 four years of which I had taught at a "regional campus" of a prestigious state "research' university. The issues of cheating and plagiarism are certainly issues, but to me they are symptoms of a larger issue: our young people come to university lacking both the skills and the motivation to be able to learn. Some examples:

    1) My students either refused to or were unable to read the material assigned, often complaining that "there were too many big words in that stuff" and seeming to be unaware of the utility of a dictionary.

    2) I was consistently evaluated as a "bad" teacher because I didn't use PowerPoint, and refused to post my lecture notes onto the OnLine teaching site for the class. Students didn't know how to take notes during a class, and usually didn't care to learn how to do so when offered the opportunity.

    3) My courses in an arts area required more "homework" than the usual university course, and in the past 15 years it has become obvious that for most students a due date is meaningless, and my refusal to accept late assignments produced many complaints to my Dean and even to my Chancellor! One very bright and able student turned in ALL of his assignments the day before grades had to be posted, and was crushed when I failed him-"I did the work"….

    4) If I can't find a video to illustrate my point, the point will be lost to most of the students.


    In my opinion, the worst thing than can happen to an American boy or girl is to be subjected to the usual K-12 "education"–a process that will stifle their natural curiosity, leave them unable to read critically (or even just for the fun of it), write clearly, and think creatively and openly about the world. Technology becomes naturally the escape from, the antidote to, the boring grind of school–it's just that technology teaches skills other than those that are useful in higher education. I'm not a Luddite–my artistic life has been electronic or computer-based for over forty years. I've successfully used technology to teach and to make art. But to use technology well in the arts, one needs to understand the whole of the discipline–and that's the theory of the discipline, the history, the sociology and economics of the discipline, the psychology, and the aesthetics as well. There are no shortcuts that will shorten the path leading to learned and assimilated understanding of a discipline and the opportunities and difficulties presented by one's mastery of that discipline. Perhaps it's old-fashioned of me to think this way, but I've not found any better way to teach than the ways I was taught, and the usual high school graduate has no way that she/he can relate to this kind of a teacher.

  12. I'm banging on a drum that's gone flat, maybe, but – community of scholars. There have been some attempts at community of scholars in Tier 2 and 3 schools – Evergreen State, Sonoma State, Santa Cruz. And my general impression is that they've become slacker's paradises, learning has suffered, and there've been moves to go back to grades and competition. And then there's the slide towards Directional State, and protecting the kids who are working hard from having their results devalued by cheaters getting the same grades or better. Getting good grades in Fire Science coursework as you try and make lieutenant in the Stockton FD is a rival good, as is getting on as a third grade teacher in Orinda. Some folks – Charles Murray eg – are suggesting that if you isolate the competition into testing for competence you can shift away from jamming a lot of kids into programs which aren't nourishing them but merely provide credentials. And maybe if you do that you can move towards community of scholars.

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