Tuesday, April 21, 2009

No Cheatin' Allowed

This going to sound like a bit of a puff piece, but as a teacher and an educator, I have discovered over the past year that just the tiniest technological change can make all the difference in the world when it comes to making a difference with your students. The change I refer to is a small feature in Google's Online Apps that has allowed me to demonstrate beyond a doubt to all my students that it is well nigh on impossible for them to cheat when writing an assignment for me. Before I get into the nitty gritty, however, it's time for a little background.

Where I live and teach, for most students the study of writing generally consists of a few points about grammar and a trip over to "the Google" for a quick copy and paste. It was easy to spot the cheating, which popped up in nine out of ten submissions, by the simple expedient that if I could both read it and understand it, it was not their work. That was the easy part. The hard part was going through the exhausting arguments where students would swear (Wa'allah teacher, I swear! My two eyes!) that they had done the work, that they had not cheated, all of which was accompanied by great eye rolling, hand waving, and the propitious beating of chests. With twenty odd cases like this to look at, in a row, caving in often became the default option. Since I hadn't been right there, watching over their shoulder as they did the deed, I couldn't prove a thing. Thus the path was clear to argue until day turned to night, or it was time for the next period. Either way worked for them.

To solve this, issue, I first turned to handwriting only, but that was a bust. not only did the students still copy each other, word for word, regardless of my ongoing protestations, but the entire process slowed down to a grind. Not only did it all take longer, but it was harder to read those essays, and when the arguments started, I couldn't say "you didn't write this," because my literalist budding lawyers knew very well it had been their own hand put to paper, so that was the end of that.

What to do? Well, I went back to the computer only system, but instead of accepting handouts, I had an email only policy, since this allowed me to compare papers side by side, call over the offenders, and demand to know whose paper it really was. I could do online text searches to determine where the copied text came from, but with students used to banding together, it was back with the arguments and the ardent declarations of innocence all over again. Overall this was a little better than what had happened before, but not by much. So again I was left with the same question - what to do?

Well, in a moment of zany impulsiveness, I checked out Google Docs. I don't know what led me there, because the last time I had used it, it was right after the service had been introduced, and it was easily the worst word processor I had ever seen. But I was pleasantly surprised to see things had changed, that the application had become slicker and more robust. The greatest surprise came when I saw two distinct features that I knew, right away, would change the whole teaching writing game. Share, and Revision History.

First, I could get my students to share their documents with me as a collaborator. This meant I could watch their document from my own desk, almost literally see the words moving across the page, and I had the ability to edit, change, and comment on their documents in return. I could give notes to an entire class in the time it used to take me to look over two or three handwritten pieces. Best of all, I could see exactly when the student had last used the document, so when they told me they had been "working on it" the night before, I could pull up the empirical evidence right before their eyes. With no leg to stand on, those arguments stopped before they began. But this was not even the best of what I discovered.

Embedded in the Tools directory, there is a small function called Revision History. You see, as an online app that saves documents to the cloud, and has access to pretty much unlimited storage space, Google Docs automatically saves documents in thirty to sixty second intervals. Ever single version of each document is saved and stored also. This meant that I could click on the Revision History, and see how long it had taken to write a particular document. If the student had done the work themselves, I would see short progressions of added text in each successive version. But if I saw a sudden, massive jump in text? Bam! Caught cheating.

I put this baby up on the overhead, and in each class I showed how I had caught every single cheater in that class. Using those indestructible tools, my students lost all the will to argue their innocence when I caught them red handed. In retaliation, they refused to use Google Apps, went to their parents and told them horror stories of being forced to use "the Google," but to no avail. Because in every case, when a concerned parent came in to see these new inhuman practices, I could calmly open up their child's work, show them the evidence, and rest easy on the side of the angels.

All of a sudden, I saw a remarkable change. Knowing that, like the Terminator, I could catch them every time, my students stopped trying to cheat. And when they protested that their English was not good, I told them clearly that I wanted their not good English. I wanted them to write, no matter what level they were. And with no option but to do their own work, my students fell to the task of actually doing their own work. And the results were remarkable.

In a month I saw more progress in my students than I had over the course of an entire year. In fact, I had never been this effective before, regardless of the tricks and efficiencies I might have tried to teach them, and all of it was thanks to "the Google," or more specifically, Google Docs - the most powerful classroom tool I have ever encountered.

So, like I said, this will, and has, sounded like a puff piece, like PR copy straight from the G-Plex, but it isn't. It's the straight truth, and I'm not in the least embarrassed to tell it this way for one single reason - with this program, I can catch them cheatin'.

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