Is Using the Internet Cheating?

My Thanks To …

My thanks go to Michael Josefovicz (twitter: @ToughLoveforX) without whom this post would not have been written.


Michael tweeted “#ecosys When you have a little time, I’m curious to any thoughts about” the link pointing to this BBC article “Danish pupils use web in exams“, which raised a question about cheating and the Internet. My grey cell then became very excited about the question “Okay, what exactly is cheating?”.

The Assessment of Understanding

By “understanding” I refer to everything from the ability to recognise something through to the ability create something by transforming other things. Educators assess learners’ levels of understanding by devising various assessments.

This then raises the question of “How important is memory in the assessee?”. I guess that all educators would answer this with “It is crucial.” to which the subsidiary question is “What is important that is remembered by the assessee?”. I will address this last question by way of analogy.

I expect the next paragraph to provoke an angry reaction from some readers.

I maintain that expecting assessees to be able to fill in random parts or the whole of the periodic table is at best a waste of time and is potentially misleading as an assessment tool. The ability to perform this task relies solely on blind memory without any need whatsoever for understanding the information codified by the periodic table. A well-trained parrot would suffice. The assessment gives no information about the assessee’s ability create chemical reactions of a given nature by choosing reagents based on the chemical properties of the elements in those reagents. Phrases such as noble gases, halides and alkali metals come to mind in that context. While anybody who works regularly with a group of elements will become very familiar with the properties of those elements, and one thinks here of scientists working on novel semi-conductor devices, the requirement to assess anybody’s ability to recall the whole of the periodic table prior to going into the workplace is quite pointless.

Prior to search engines becoming a commonplace, it could be argued that having ready access to a fund of knowledge stored inside one’s own head was an essential for being able to do a job. To look something up in a reference text could take anything from a few minutes to several days depending on whether the text was available in the library in the next room, or needed to be obtained through inter-library loan. People now have access to levels of knowledge that was inconceivable 20 years ago. Rather than having to carry thousands of facts around in one’s head, what is needed today is an understanding of the context in which the question is being asked and being able to place the answers within that context. If, as I had cause to recently, I wanted to find out about the safety of an ant-killer powder that was beyond its use-by date, I needed to understand what it degraded to, the rate of degradation, and the toxicity of the result. While a practicing toxicologist could probably have given me the answer within a matter of seconds, I knew enough about the context to ask the appropriate questions and act of the answers that I found, all this in a matter of minutes.

So when we see somebody “cheating” in an exam, what are they doing? They are taking information from another source, in this case a fellow assessee. Is it legitimate to do so? Probably not, but … accessing the Internet with the correct question and being able to use the resulting answers when responding to an exam question requires an understanding of the context. In other words: “How well is the assessee able to remember the context (and everything that goes into making a context) rather than being able to merely regurgitate facts?”.

This then has significant impact on what and how we teach, and (which may be even more of a challenge) how we devise assessments to establish the assessee’s understanding of the context.

The Future

Given that Internet research is now a part of future generations’ lives, I think it is incumbent on today’s awarding bodies to take this into account when defining “conditions of assessment” (or “examination conditions” if you prefer).

10 thoughts on “Is Using the Internet Cheating?

  1. Phil

    I so agree – testing regurgitation of facts is not (in my view) a valid strategy for assessing learning. For many years as a school and beyond student I felt very disadvantaged by the fact that I needed to learn by rote in order to pass exams. I have always been very bad at that – with a consequent impact on my results. Although as I said in a recent post of my own I do still bless the teacher that drilled me in times tables. Imho there are some things that are useful to keep in the reference bank I call my mind and some that are not – times tables fall into the useful category!

    Knowing how to use facts and information is far more important than being able to remember the facts when as you so rightly say they are at our fingertips.

    I think that I feel a post of my own coming on with respect to what works in our current “web-age” in terms of assessment. Groan the second time in less than a week that I have been inspired by someone else to write a post when I don’t really have time!


  2. Phil,

    Great points. I think the Denmark case will prove to be quite positive. I believe it takes higher level skills to be able to search for information, evaluate which information is best suited for the context, and apply the information. These are the skills that are needed and will be used for careers. Regurgitating facts means students aren’t evaluating the source and that bothers me. In life, the majority of situations involve more than one answer or solution and we have to base choices on our thinking skills. I don’t feel students get enough practice doing this and perhaps that is why many adults make terrible choices.

  3. Hey, I just wrote about it a short while ago:
    “…I had this idea… enable full Internet access during an exam. The big fear of cheating, I mean copying, is irrelevant, I told her. You’ve got to be a good student and know your way around the material in order not to get lost between the huge amounts of information, advice and opinions available online. If you can get your answers right without learning anything before, you must be a very good self learner and perhaps talented enough in this area not to need extra learning. As I see it, a big part of this test is to test students ability to learn, not necessarily their existing accumulated knowledge.”
    You can read the whole story here:

  4. Interesting thoughts and certainly something I have struggled with over the early years of my teaching career. I have been known to allow students to access their notes during an assessment and often say that in most cases in the real world you can use your resources to look up an answer.

    Knowing that they might be able to use their notes, more students have taken them which will help their own retention of the information.

    It does take some ability to be able to pose the correct question online to get the right information. I agree that this skill is an important part of the learning. Thanks for the food for thought.

  5. Frankly, unless I’m specifically testing the ability to find information, I prefer to give students whatever info they need in order to have them focus exclusively on processing it in whatever way I’m testing. Otherwise they are just wasting valuable time and energy that would be put to better use on the task at hand.

  6. In the 1970s and 80s when digital calculators first became available, this same argument took place over them. From the beginning I always allowed students to use them; but I found it usually didn’t help, and often hurt. I found that most students had no ability to estimate correct answers, so when they punched the wrong button on the calculator, and arrived at a nonsense answer, they didn’t notice it. Their’s was the answer the calculator produced, so it must be correct.

  7. Bill’s first comment moves slightly away from the theme of assessment. Nevertheless, that comment reflects what I was doing with my students on a computer programming course 15 years ago.

    His second comment touches on a much broader theme: how to judge the quality of information. I do not remember seeing this in any of the curriculum documents that I have seen. Has anybody else that in a curriculum document?

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