Cheating to learn?

Photo of the Week - Cheat Mountain Salamander (WV)

Photo of the Week – Cheat Mountain Salamander (WV)
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Flickr, CC-BY 2.0. Credit: Ryan Hagerty/USFWS

From samizdat to “Information wants to be free,” libraries and librarians have long been concerned with pushing boundaries in the name of access to information. A recent book about youth behavior in virtual worlds suggests, in a roundabout way, some new ways to continue this tradition.

In Connected Play: Tweens in a Virtual World (The MIT Press, 2013), Yasmin B. Kafai and Deborah A. Fields have distilled the results of a multi-year research project on how pre-teens interact, explore and express themselves in online communities. Notably, they devote a chapter of their findings to boundary play, “kids’ playful testing of ethical boundaries” by scamming and cheating (p. 17).

Their research looks closely at Whyville, a science learning virtual world for kids aged 8 – 18. With subject consent, the authors analyzed anonymized data (log files) from several hundred users and worked more closely with three small groups of kids in classes and an after-school Whyville club. As Kafai and Fields demonstrate, Whyville is no learning management system. It’s predominantly a social space for youth to design their own avatars, chat and hang out.

Kafai and Fields find that reimagining “play” is key to understanding how Whyville works. In fact, how kids play (in) Whyville actually helps to redefine “connectedness” in ways that could inform library programs and resources. Among a wide range of behaviors, Whyville users frequently connect by maintaining cheat sites and tinkering with the inner workings of the site to design cheats to share.

Pushing boundaries is censured or held in contempt in many contexts but Kafai and Fields detail the possibilities for “turning boundary play into good play” (p. 95). Inspired by behavior they call “benign transgression,” or playfully testing the rules, they ask how educators might turn boundary play into “constructive practice in classrooms” (p. 133) or how game designers might build in-game opportunities for kids to “critique the designs and cultures of the in-game worlds they learn to inhabit” (p. 120).

One approach is to consider cheat sites as information resources. The best user-built cheat sites are well-organized, take ample feedback from users and explain cheats for different games in terms of why each cheat works. The authors contend that quality cheats and game design together can boost user grasp of the concepts behind them:

“The better the game, the more likely the cheat will help players understand aspects of science or practices of research—like making a reference guide for spectra of common elements.” (p. 133)

Another core argument in Connected Play is that better game design can teach critical literacy through cheats and cheating:

“Taking this a step further, we might ask our students to brainstorm ways to ‘cheat’ in our own classes… We might also use this to evaluate the designs of our own classes—if students ‘cheated’ the class, would that result in learning some of the key ideas or practices of the course or would it only bypass the learning needed for the course?” (p. 133)

One interesting example comes from Peter Nonacs, a UCLA professor who wrote a post for Zocaló Public Square describing what happened when he encouraged a class to cheat on an exam. Given the option to work together on the exam, call a friend, and more, students spent the week beforehand intensively planning and debating the most effective way to ensure good grades for all. The decision-making process immersed students in game theory, the topic of the exam.

Mills Kelly’s boundary-pushing course “Lying About the Past” also comes to mind. “Lying About the Past” was an undergraduate history class at George Mason University that garnered press for nearly getting away with two Wikipedia hoaxes. The goal was to play with critical and information literacy in online environments by subverting Wikipedia’s collective editing model. Library pedagogy could be the perfect context for digging into critical literacy with activities like these.

Connected Play also describes how rampant cheating prompt ethics discussions among Whyville users. A kind of town hall on cheating and civic responsibility results when one user deliberately cheats in a Whyville election to prove how easy it is. Debate centers on whether cheating that does not break the site’s formal rules can violate its informal code of conduct, “The Whyville Way.”

Many of us have had (or will have) ethics discussions in library school that range from copyright and access concerns to safe library spaces and beyond. How many of those conversations consider how librarians might teach critical thinking about ethics in addition to behaving ethically ourselves? Is it our place? What lessons might we draw from “boundary” behavior that dig deeper than kneejerk responses like “Don’t be like that”?

Here are a few other ways to turn boundary play into learning experiences in the library:

  • Recruit cheat site managers to create other information resources for their peers. Cheat sites may be labors of love but their curators may discover a general affinity for organizing and sharing information.
  • Create opportunities for young tinkerers to take things apart, remix or rewire them. Subverting a system can be the best way to learn how it works and libraries can create positive environments for this kind of creativity. Some kind of virtual machine or code sandbox could be a useful addition to maker spaces in libraries.
  • Use examples of boundary play — whether incidental or deliberately fostered by library activities — to guide conversations about ethical information behavior, civic and social responsibility and more.

What other learning opportunities are possible in this space? Do you have personal experience with boundary play, cheats and ethics in library pedagogy? Suggestions, criticism, lessons learned, and more are welcome in the comments or @amelish.


To learn more about youth behavior in online communities and virtual worlds, consider these starting points. Unsurprisingly, a lot of this research has emerged from iSchools. And, of course, there’s more out there than one post can cover.

— Amy Wickner (@amelish)

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