Friday, August 28, 2009

Tales of student cheating

At Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., there is now a grade of FD, considered lower than F, for a students found guilty of egregious cases of academic dishonesty. (

In contrast, at California community colleges, " is not permissible to give a student either a failing grade or an incomplete because a student has cheated on a particular assignment" no matter how egregious the offense ( ).

Here are two tales from my campus in the 2008-2009 academic year. In the first, a student paid a ringer $1000 (yes, one thousand US dollars) to sit next to him during a calculus exam, and also paid $100 to each of several other students in class just to sit in seats surrounding the two principals. When the ringer completed the exam (early), a pre-planted cellphone went off. It took the instructor some time to locate the cellphone, which was stashed in a trash can. While the instructor was thus distracted, the ringer handed off his completed exam to the cheater, who then copied answers in his own handwriting . The ringer was not enrolled in the course (someone dropped from the class that day) and simply did not turn in an exam. We learned of the scheme because one of the $100 classmates confessed.

In the second case, an online student paid $100 for a ringer to take an elementary algebra quiz. We learned this from the ringer, who forwarded to the math department chair an email from the cheater detailing the instructions for taking the quiz and proposed payment--the ringer was outraged because the cheater "was suppossed [sic] to pay me $100 for the same which he didnt [sic]."

In neither case could the instructor assign a grade of F. The calculus student passed and the algebra student dropped the course.

And by the way, unless your school is so small that the instructors know all the students on campus, you probably have students on your campus taking classes for others.

Here's how the scam works.

Abe and Bob both sign up for English 1 and Math B, but different sections of each subject. Abe attends and does the work for both English classes and Bob does the same for both math classes. The four instructors involved know the names and faces of all the students in their classes, so they never bother to check IDs. (Professor Yee doesn't know that Abe attends her English class every day answering to the name of Bob, and Professor Zed doesn't know that Bob attends her Math class every day answering to Abe).

The two cheaters get credit for two classes while only needing to master the material for one (and without having to pay any bribe money).

A few years ago we actually had a case of a man taking a class for a woman. Classmates were upset that the ringer was raising the curve, and they informed the instructor that the same person was answering to an entirely different name in other classes. The student who was actually enrolled in the class was Asian, and her instructor did not recognize that her name was a woman's. The only consequences to the students were that they had to speak with a vice-president, and that neither got credit for the class that semester.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Section 508 and the Use of Non-captioned Videos

The ADA compliance officer on my campus says that I am forbidden to provide a link to any of the wonderfully useful videos I find on YouTube or MathTV because of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The text of Section 508 can be found at, and FAQs can be found at The main idea of the statute was to require that information technology resources purchased with public funds be accessible to people with disabilities. And, from the FAQ page cited above, “In general, an information technology system is accessible to people with disabilities if it can be used in a variety of ways that do not depend on a single sense or ability.”

But the subsequent state adoption of the regulation has altered the thrust of the regulation. The popular interpretation is that the regulation forbids the use of any video that is not captioned.

I recognize that captioned videos can be beneficial to many students, not only those with disabilities. And I do plan to include captioning when I create videos. But it is ridiculous that I cannot recommend existing excellent math videos (which are useful even without sound) to my face-to-face classes, not even as an optional resource for which no credit is awarded.

My issue is not about the benefits of having captioned videos, it's about a wrong-headed policy that exceeds the actual statute requirements and forbids using valuable resources.

The mucky-mucks embrace the ban on all non-captioned videos because they want to minimize any chance of a lawsuit of any sort. But they do not consider that the easiest path for an instructor is to avoid making any use of the Web, and the result will be that the students will actually have their learning experience diminished.

I'm trying to find some credible person who can explain what adoption of the statute actually requires. But so far I've only found people who can tell me the policy that their school/district/system has adopted, not anyone who has familiarity with the actual statute.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Using Wolfram|Alpha in a math class

As Maria Andersen convincingly argues in her blog Teaching College Mathematics, the introduction of Wolfram|Alpha will have a significant impact on our math classrooms.

We are not going to make Wolfram|Alpha go away, so we need to learn how to make the best use of it.

Both Maria and Robert Talbert provide interesting examples of what Wolfram|Alpha can do. But how do we take advantage of its power (and weaknesses)?

If we assume that our students will be using Wolfram|Alpha with or without our encouragement, we should at least help them get past some of the things Wolfram|Alpha does that are not appropriate for a given class.

If we ask it to "graph y=3x+5" we get two graphs, the first of which seems to have a negative y-intercept and a positive x-intercept. We can show this to our beginning algebra students, discuss why this graph should surprise us, and, after examining the scale on the horizontal axis, resolve the apparent error.

If we ask it to "solve 2^x = 5" we get an answer that involves complex numbers. We can still show this to our intermediate algebra class, and discuss what appears when we click on the "Show steps" button.