Day 12: Known Unknowns(?)

18 09 2009

compass 649932_highDay 12 was a project day, so after we checked attendance via email I asked my students to answer a single question for me using Nanotools, our very basic locally developed survey system. I explained the dilemma we face in designing an electronic quiz, specifically that the system can give them immediate right/wrong feedback on each question, OR it can let them go back and change answers during the quiz, but not both (NOTE: in a common student fantasy they receive feedback, then are allowed to change answers). My question was which they would prefer: (a) immediate feedback, (b)the chance to change, or (c) no preference.

Today, I learned an important lesson: Nanotools is appropriate for informal feedback ONLY. How did I learn this? I’ll let you take a look at the graph of responses, and you can observe two things. First, the responses nanotools graphwere roughly split between the first two options. And second, my class of 69 students managed to log a total of 86 votes. This peculiarity was pointed out to me after class by an astute student, and in talking with him I learned that the students had discovered early on that they could vote multiple times.

In an informal poll, this weakness is hardly fatal, but it does bring up an interesting point: with electronic tools we will find ourselves rookies once again when it comes to issues like exam security. While most faculty have figured out that students have no business messing with a phone during an exam, connected learning means students are required to use their phones, and the basic screen-capture function allows even a fairly lazy student to save a photo of each question to his photo roll with just a push of the appropriate buttons.

I don’t believe that the ‘new’ ways of cheating are any more insidious or dangerous than the old; I simply point out that, in the poetic words of a former Secretary of Defense:

As we know, there are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns.
That is to say we know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know we don’t know.

What’s that? You didn’t know the iPhone did screen capture? Surprise, an unknown. Count on the fact that there are others out there too, including ever more creative ways to gain an unfair advantage. So how do we respond? Do we give up, dismiss the tools, go back to the old ways? Of course not. With new tools and new unknowns we simply re-accept the responsibility not to recycle the same exam for seven consecutive semesters, not to offer excessive credit for any single assignment, not to ask only for regurgitated data when we need to test comprehension and application.

In short, lazy teaching still doesn’t work, and the new tools offer a new mix of pros and cons, rather than a panacea. So stay nimble; it’s the unknown unknowns that can jump up and bite you.

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