Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Cheating by cell phone

I have been watching the news these few days on the saga of the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA) and wondering what went wrong. HKEAA, in devising examination questions for English Language exam of HKCE, included the address of the website from which one of the question originated. It was alleged that some students took advantage of this information and used their cell phone to browse the website and, again alleged, got the answer to the question.

It appears to be a case arising from the advance of information technology, or a case of information technology not properly managed. On the outset, the culprit of the case was the display of the website address in the examination paper. Why did some silly persons do something like that? The excuse of HKEAA was that the origin of the material had to be displayed for the reason of copyright. I think this is a stupid excuse, normally taken by an inflexible bureaucracy. The rigid rule was to acknowledge authors in order to get away with copyright law. First, on the practical side, acknowledgment was for the benefit of the readers to know the true origin of the material, and to give credit to the original author. However, for an examination paper which is only seen by students for a short while, putting down the original website address does not serve such purpose. Second, to address copyright, the permission of the author should be sought instead. It is not like that the material was casually mentioned or reviewed. The material was used for a purpose, and actually the examination paper setter could be making a profit out of it.

HKEAA has been skillful and the media were led down another track. Taking advantage of the complaints of the students that someone might have got the answer using a cell phone, the bomb was moved underneath the table of someone else, that cheating by the use of cell phone should be condemned. A witch hunt is now going on with HKEAA going to the police and seeking witnesses who were in the examination halls on the examination day.

Bringing a cell phone into the examination hall is always prohibited, the main reason being its disturbance to others. Even if HKEAA could get away with the first sin of putting the website address in the examination paper, it should be blamed for not doing its job right in allowing cell phones in the examination hall. HKEAA again shifted the weight and put the blame back to the students by calling cheating. Now the whole community is talking about student integrity, while there is still no proof that any student actually browsed the website within a couple of valuable minutes of examination time and remembered the content and came back to write a good answer. But HKEAA is temporarily off the hook.

Now the power of information technology. It is generally agreed that almost all the knowledge of the world is within reached by almost everybody. The reason is that knowledge is now being digitized and distributed around the world in websites, to be fetched with simple devices in an instance. Knowledge is gathered under websites, and website addresses are the keys. It is not like quoting an author or the name of a book. It is like saying the knowledge is put in which page of a book in which library in which street in which city. Just that in a flat world one can get to that page instantaneously. Quoting a website is like putting a book by the examination table. It is just a matter of how to flip that book.

If HKEAA is not to be blamed, can we blame the cell phone? It is this device of information technology that allegedly gave instant access to the knowledge. Personal devices are so powerful these days that many people travel the world and get connected to any person and any knowledge through them. However, to be practical again, I wonder how widespread is such technology to secondary students. I know only a few people who regularly use their high-tech cell phone to browse the Internet. Also, only a handful of websites can be browsed easily through the small cell phone screen. Even the best cell phones, or PDA phones, cannot let you browse wide and long text with ease. Just imagine a wiz kid hiding in the toilet for ten minutes browsing a website through a small cell phone screen and came back memorized a model answer. This wiz kid does not have to take public exam. Any chancellor will gladly welcome him directly to the university.

Political sentiment and group behaviour are hard to predict, in particular when education officials came out to take the arrows for HKEAA. The whole thing could just be a red herring dreamed up by some students when they curiously saw the website address in an examination paper.

I have sympathy to the students who devised creative ways of cheating. I heard stories about students copying gists of books, mathematical equations, scientific formula in secret locations in small prints. I cannot help wondering that if they spent so much effort in copying all these valuable materials carefully, they should have already know these materials. This is what revision is all about.

In my time, we were forbidden to take a calculator into the examination hall. All calculations had to be done by heart and by hand. Time changes. Calculators are now allowed. The human race evolves and we go up another level in getting knowledge. Cell phone browsing website during examination may now be a fantasy. But more advanced devices are on the way. Devices such as tiny size computers, wear-on computers, computers fit on your glasses, or implanted somewhere on your body will make them unnoticed in the examination halls. However, devices are not knowledge. Knowledge kept by you is not necessarily yours. One needs to internalize knowledge before ideas can be expressed in the examination papers. Many universities have open book examinations where students can freely refer to the materials. In those examinations, there are open ended questions for which one cannot copy an answer from somewhere. Learning has taken a step higher. For now, we still dwell on the question of who went into the toilet and used the cell phone to browse the website provided by HKEAA.

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