Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Verifying Identity

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 07, 1997

Posted to DEOS-L on 7 Aug 1997

Arguments such as the one below frequently show up in discussions of student identity. It begs a response..

Does it really matter? First of all, people taking continuing ed courses are usually paying money for their own self improvement. They want to learn the material, not just get some silly credential to hang on their wall. If your course is interesting enough, why would anyone ever want to cheat on it?

A significant number of people are in it for the credentials. This is understandable, given that many employers or academic institutions look only for credentials. They do not typically test for acquired knowledge.

The number of people taking courses strictly for their own self-improvement is appallingly small, in my opinion.

And what if they are looking at it as a necessary credential, one they couldn't possibly ever achieve on their own? Do you really think there are that many people who go through life "cheating" their way through everything?

They don't have to cheat through everything. They only have to cheat through this one thing. Often, a degree is the ticket to a better life, which may be conducted honestly once the initial leg up has been provided.

Additionally, I doubt that anybody who cheats takes the attitude, "Well, this means I'm going to cheat for the rest of my life." Their attention is likely very focussed: "If I could only get by this one exam..."

And if they are, does it really matter? If it works for them, and they aren't being caught out by it, then they've found a successful way to live life. It may not be how you and I deal with it, but you can only do so much to impose your morality on others before you have to write them off (or take vows).

I have no problem imposing my morality on someone I am trusting for successful brain surgery, dentistry, accounting, auto mechanics, legal advice, etc. And I reject the standard argument, which runs something like this: "Well, if you didn't like his brain surgery, don't go back there again..."

In general, I've found that people cheat on uninteresting things that they are forced to do. For example, forcing someone to take chemistry when they don't want to, and then subjecting them to a totally uninteresting class is a likely set up for cheating. You can always make the argument that "there will be many unpleasant things in life that you will just have to deal with" but even this doesn't hold, because the people that will cheat will find a way to either cheat or ignore the things they don't want to deal with in life.

Again, this argument presupposes that once a person cheats, they will cheat at everything in the future. There is no reason to believe that this is so, and even if it is so, there is no reason to believe that the cheater is *aware* of this prior to taking that action.

It makes little sense to waste enormous effort on trying to stop the few people that are going to try and cheat the system.

An analogy: It makes little sense to waste enormous effort on trying to stop the few people that are going to try to murder for fun and profit.

The problem with murder is that, even if only a few people do it, everybody else's life is affected because then we cannot be sure of our safety and security. Everybody, not just the murderer, is a suspect.

The same with cheating. If cheating can occur undetected, it affects many other people as well. If I know that nothing prevents a person from the Manitoba Medical School from cheating, then even if I know that only one person a year cheats, I cannot trust any graduate from that school. Certainly not with my life, at any rate.

Institutions always say, "my god, but when people realize that this person is a fake, they'll think the institution that let this happen is lousy."

This is a straw man argument. This is not what people say. The actual argument is the one I just gave, above.

I really don't believe that. I think people say, "this guy has cheated his way through life."

Again, if the person is repairing my brakes, saying "this person has cheated his way through life" will be small consolation as I plunge down the cliff.

If someone wants to cheat the system badly enough, they'll find a way, and everyone knows this.

If someone wants to murder the president, they can find a way. That doesn't mean that we don't make it very difficult for them to do so. Many crimes - including both murder and cheating - are crimes of opportunity. It was easy, so, they did it.

In any case, even though some people will find a way, it is useful to have a mechanism which ensures that those not competent enough to find that way will get caught. A screening system will reduce cheating, even if it won't eliminate it outright.

I could walk into any MIT final exam and take anyone else's exam for them. Do I? No, because a) I have my own integrity, b) everyone else has their own integrity, c) I probably wouldn't do much better on the exam than they would.

I would agree with these observations. Just as I would agree that it is not the police which stops us from murdering our children, it is our sense of moral integrity. Yet - repulsive as it is to us - some people murder murder their children. Thus we establish a mechanism for detecting and preventing such occurrence wherever possible. In a similar manner, some people try to write others' exams at MIT. Thus is is prudent and reasonable for MIT to set up a system of detecting and preventing such occurrences. Like, say, asking for ID.

I have an acquaintance that basically cheated his way through MIT. He still doesn't have a degree, but he's cheated his way through the business world too. Do you think if someone found out about this they'd say, "wow, MIT must be a lousy institution for letting that happen?"

Again, this is a straw man argument. Were I a business acquaintance with your friend, I'd be saying something like, "I wish somebody had caught him before he ran off with my company's pension fund."

At some point, cheaters will learn that it doesn't work... or they won't, and they'll have cheated their way through life. Why waste your time thinking about it?

Well, he is the crux of the matter: it is *important*, sometimes life-and-death important, to be sure that a person has the skills their credentials say they do.

In a modern industrialized society people are highly dependent on skilled professionals for a variety of critical functions. I have listed some above; they include such areas as medicine, mechanics, law and business.

This is more than simply an ethical issue: critically, our society cannot function without that trust. We must have reasonable expectations of competent performance, not just from a few highly skilled professionals, but rather from a large number of people.

The question is not whether we can verify a test writer's identity, but rather, how. That is the subject of my other post.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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