Cheating, Ethics, Computer Science

It all started when I saw a link to this article about students creating videos to show others how to cheat. These young people don’t see anything wrong with cheating or helping others to cheat. Oh they understand that their teachers don’t like it but they don’t seem to really understand why. This led to a little chat on Twitter. The problem is everywhere. The way I see it students have decided that the goal of school is to get good grades. So if cheating helps them get to that goal they are by some definition a success. Now personally I always saw the goal of school to learn things but apparently that is not the case any more.

So where does this attitude come from and where is it taking us? Well according to David Callahan's book "The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong To Get Ahead” (book review here) cheating is pretty much everywhere in our culture today. Is winning everything? Is “how one gets there” no longer important? Important and scary questions.

But you’re no doubt waiting for the promised tie in with computer science. Well let me start with that great line “with great power comes great responsibility.” It seems to be that the rapid rate of growth of computer controlled systems is providing computer scientists and information technology professional with great power. This is not power we want controlled by unethical people. This is already worrying people.

Visit this article about computer-controlled battle robots. (NY Times free subscription may be required) The article talks about robots that will battle people not other robots. The “research hypothesis is that intelligent robots can behave more ethically in the battlefield than humans currently can,” according to Ronald Arkin, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech. Does that say something scary about humans to you? It does me. These robots will be programmed by humans though. A mixed item that. One hopes that ethical rules can be agreed on and programmed and that robots will avoid making unethical choices because of fear or bigotry or other emotional issues. But those programmers has better be highly ethical or we’re all in trouble.

There are of course a lot of artificial intelligence issues to worked out for these robots as well. But ethics is always going to be important. I believe we need to start talking about that early. Not just for computer science of course but those of us involved in CS education have to make sure that our students don’t miss out on it. We should not just assume that they will learn it in some other class. And we should be particularly distrustful of the idea that they will learn ethical behavior when they leave school. There are just too many examples of the opposite happening.

Comments (4)

  1. Dale Hawthorne says:

    I agree with what you’ve written about how one gets there as being significant. The questions could be added:

    Would you want someone working on your development team who cheated his or her way to a comp sci degree?

    What would your management team do if they found out that someone in their development organization cheated his or her way to a comp sci degree?

    As I see it, the cheating habit can very easily become resume padding, backstabbing, credit grabbing and shoddy output when a person actually enters the workforce in a job for which he or she isn’t really qualified by acquired knowledge or skills.

  2. Good post on a topic that gets way too little attention…

    Speaking as a former HS teacher who now works in the IT industry:  Please remind your students that THEIR TECH SKILLS MEAN NOTHING WITHOUT THEIR INTEGRITY, CHARACTER, WORK ETHIC, HONESTY, etc.

    I frequently interview candidates for tech positions at our company.  I often get resumes with long lists of tech skills and accomplishments.  I discuss these with the candidate during the interview — hopefully this leads to great discussion.  But sometimes it’s clear that the candidate can’t "back up" what’s on their resume — their skills and experience are superficial, nowhere near the depth suggested by their resume.

    This is a HUGE red flag in hiring, EVEN IF THE CANDIDATE HAS STRONG ENOUGH SKILLS FOR THE JOB.  ("If they weren’t honest about this, what else can’t we trust about them?")

    We’d much prefer to hire an honest, hard-working candidate who is WILLING TO WORK HARD TO LEARN, even though their current skill set may be slightly weaker than someone who inflated their resume.

    Just a thought…

  3. Leigh Ann says:

    And then you get the gray area:

    Just and interesting follow up to what you wrote 🙂

  4. Ben Fulton says:

    I think the root problem is that the tasks involved in "getting good grades" and the tasks involved in "learning things" are almost completely orthogonal.  Students don’t have time for both, so they have to choose.

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