Homework Help = Cheating ?

In checking out some of the people mentioned in this posting by Seb Schmoller (which I learned of via Stephen Downes), I was led to consider where is the borderline between helping a student to learn and facilitating cheating.

Actually I think I have a pretty good idea of where the line is, but it seems that some others either do not, or that they actively choose to live on the other side of it.

It is certainly true that among the many websites devoted to on-line tutoring and/or facilitating peer-to-peer student cooperation there are some that are real gems. Some of these even advertise “homework help” in which they are careful not to cross the line and make sure that they lead the students to really work out their own ideas rather than just providing something to be copied and handed in to meet the formal requirements of an assignment without actually learning anything. But others are less careful and some are frankly engaged in facilitating what can only be described as cheating. Unfortunately, more often than not, the phrase “homework help” is used as a coy way of advertising the latter.

Now some people (such as Virtually Scholastic in response to my comment on Seb’s posting) seem to see the provision of complete solutions to assigned exercises as being just an inevitable and blameless application of available technology and say that the problem lies with the unimaginative teacher. But even original and creative assignments can be subjected to the same process of circumvention unless the instructor is involved in every step of the assignment – which largely defeats the goal of having people build a sense of their own capacity by working and persevering through difficulties to eventually achieve success independently.

I have no interest in blaming technology (or its facilitators) for its abuse, but the sites in question (as well as many traditional face to face tutors of course) often do more than help students to learn and cooperate (which is admirable if the cooperation is directed towards enhancing their learning). Unfortunately they (the sites by their design and advertising, not the technology) also encourage the students to cooperate in a less than productive manner or even to bypass all meaningful interaction and just download prepared answers or essays. And they also usually seek to profit from that counter-productive activity. Yes, the solutions to any published exercise are going to be somewhere, and for any exercise, published or not, someone can be found to provide a solution. But purchasing and submitting the work of someone else as one’s own is still cheating. And even if the assignment is not for submission, the students are cheating themselves of the experience that would have enhanced their learning, understanding and confidence.

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