It seems like every student, at some point in their educational career, has had at least one teacher lecture his class on how easy we have it nowadays thanks to the Internet.
The previous generation talks about their time in the library looking up research materials and slogging through card catalogs and microfilm the same way their elders would talk about mile-long treks through the snow to school, with even less exaggeration. For today’s student, it seems almost impossible to imagine how anyone ever managed to complete any project without Wikipedia.
Indeed, the digital revolution has revolutionized education in both effectiveness and access. Sites like Khan Academy and YouTube have made it easier for anyone who wants to learn to access education, traditional
student or not.
It’s nearly impossible to argue that the advent of the Internet and other digital education materials haven’t made learning overall a better, more egalitarian experience. However, nothing comes without its drawbacks, and there’s one specific issue I want to address that has arisen in the past decade.
Just as the Internet has changed the way we attain knowledge, it changes the way we can test that knowledge. Cell phones and laptops were pretty swiftly banned from exams, for obvious reasons. However, as many science, math and engineering students discover during their time in college, certain homework assignments haven’t changed in years, and this can create some issues for students.
The classic assignment for many engineering classes is simple: professors pick a variety of problems from either the assigned textbook or other textbooks, and the students have to solve those problems and show their work. However, this system was a lot less vulnerable when textbooks were bought at the school store or through mail-order catalogs.
Nowadays, the answers to nearly every textbook question is available online, and the dissemination of these solutions has become a big industry. Look up any question in the back of an engineering textbook, and the first Google result will most likely be from Chegg.com, an online textbook giant.
For a subscription fee, this company with a market cap of nearly $500 million dollars offers step-by-step solutions to nearly any textbook problem. Chegg is not the only answer provider, as most solution manuals can be found for free with a little digging, but they’re the titans of the industry.
At first glance, this seems like another benefit of the digital-education revolution. Students are no longer doomed to be stumped by a problem they can’t solve. However, in the end, these assignments detract from the educational experience for a variety of reasons.
First, most classes are curved, which hurts students who try to work through the problems when they’re competing against students who are willing to just copy and hand in assignments that are perfect, but they may not truly understand. Many people might counter that the students that rely heavily on solutions manuals are hurt during exam time, but the fact remains that homework makes up a huge amount of many grade structures, and some students can do well enough on the exams to make up for any knowledge gaps.
The second issue involves academic dishonesty, where homework like this can blur the line between cheating and not. It’s not cheating to compare your answer to the solution manual when you’re showing your own work.
However, blatantly copying the solution can be considered academic dishonesty, and some professors can get overzealous with this issue. I’ve seen people face accusations of cheating for minor notational similarities between textbook and assignment, when the person didn’t in fact commit any dishonesty.
The whole point of bringing up this issue is that it can be solved very easily. Professors need to alter their assignments and their wording so the solutions can’t be found so easily.
It’s a simple solution that can do wonders to discourage cheating and encourage better learning of the material.