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Kids cheating with tech but are schools cheating kids?

A recent survey shows 35 percent of middle school and high school students have used cell phones to cheat at school. Troubling but maybe we need to re-think what it means to evaluate students.

The results of a survey showing that 35 percent of middle school and high school students with cell phones have used them to cheat at school is indeed alarming. And perhaps more alarming is the finding that nearly a quarter of the students don't even think it's cheating.

Cheating is cheating regardless of whether you use technology or old-fashioned paper notes. I'm appalled that kids may be using technology to cheat in school, but I'm just as appalled at how schools are cheating kids when it comes to technology.

But in addition to admonishing kids about why it's wrong to cheat, perhaps it's also time to rethink what it means to evaluate students in the age of the Internet and omnipresent mobile devices.

Common Sense Media

The survey, which was conducted by Benenson Strategy Group for Common Sense Media, found that "41 percent (of seventh- to 12th-graders) say that storing notes on a cell phone to access during tests is cheating and a serious offense, while 23 percent don't think it's cheating at all." Similarly, 45 percent say "texting friends about answers during a test" is cheating, while 20 percent do not consider it cheating. More than a third (36 percent) said that downloading a paper from the Internet to turn in was not a serious cheating offense and nearly one-fifth didn't consider it to be cheating at all. Just more than half the kids admitted to using the Internet for some form of cheating,

As a parent and former educator, I am strongly opposed to any type of cheating. And there is no way that anyone--not just students--should get away with claiming authorship on a paper they didn't write. But this survey might also present an opportunity for educators to re-evaluate the type of tests they're giving. I think there is a role for tests that measure a student's ability to quickly acquire and interpret information through mobile devices, even if they know nothing about the subject prior to sitting down for the test.

I'm not making a universal declaration that every kid should be issued a smart phone or iPod Touch to help them with every test they take. But I do think that the emergence of cheap mobile technology and--eventually--omnipresent connectivity offer educators an opportunity to incorporate the technology into their classrooms and even testing.

As Peggy Sheehy, a library media specialist from Suffern, N.Y., put it: "We can't teach 21st century literacy and assess with 19th century methodology. We have to look at what we really need students to be able to do when they leave us" and we must ask, "what is my student learning outside of school and how can I get them just as engaged?"

Right now, it's a valid point to say that letting kids access mobile devices may discriminate against those who can't afford the phones or the service. Yet that will change, just as it did with electronic calculators, as these devices become even more affordable, especially if students can access free wireless networks at school.

In the work force, what's important in most situations is not so much the facts you can pull out of your head but your ability to acquire information when you need it and--most importantly--your ability to make sense of it.

I'm not saying being able to recall facts from memory is never important. I have to do that nearly every day when I go on live radio. And I often use the Internet to acquire facts only moments before the broadcast and have occasionally had to look up a fact while taking on live radio. What's most important is not my regurgitation of the facts but my interpretation. The ability to put things into context is hard to measure with the types of multiple choice tests that are commonly used in schools.

Of course, the ability to use a search engine is no substitute for kids learning how to critically evaluate the information they do acquire. Knowing how to judge the authority of a source and being able to interpret the meaning of information--in the long run--is more important than the ability to remember it.

A few years ago I participated in a conference with educators from the U.S. and Japan. Both groups had their gripes about their country's educational system, but what I heard from several of my Japanese colleagues was the concern that their system concentrated too much on rote memory and not enough on creativity and critical thinking.

David Ricky Matsumoto, author of "The New Japan," said the same thing those educators told me: "In my experience," he wrote in the book, "the typical Japanese student excels at learning facts and figures. "...what many Japanese students lack is the ability to think about problems creatively, critically, and autonomously."

So, while we should continue to discourage cheating of any kind, we should also encourage schools to find creative ways to use technology, including cell phones, in the learning process and in the testing process. It's called adaptation. And besides, progress should always be a part of a progressive educational system.

This post is adapted from a column that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.