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"Let 'em Cheat"

Don't ban the iPods--change the tests!

Believe it or not, iPods and other digital media players are the new cheat sheets. Just when you thought you'd put a stop to tech-savvy cheating by banning cell phones from the classroom, some students have figured out how to use their digital media players as test-taking assistants. And districts are beginning to ban them.

Joint School District Number 2 in Meridian, Idaho, has already done it. According to an Associated Press news story entitled "Schools Banning iPods to Beat Cheaters," the district banned the use of digital media players "after school officials realized some students were downloading formulas and other material onto the players. "Other districts that have banned the devices from classrooms include the Seattle Public Schools and Southern California's San Gabriel Unified.

There will likely be more. In the AP story, Shana Kemp, spokesperson for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, refers to the bans as "becoming a national trend" and says, "We hope that each district will have a policy for technology it keeps a lot of the problems down."

How It Works

For those of you wondering how students can use digital media players to cheat, the simplest way is to get test answers in advance and record them for playback during the test. Students might also make digital versions of more traditional "cheat sheets" and download various references to help them find test answers. As cited in the AP story, "even an audio clip of the old 'Schoolhouse Rock' take on how a bill makes it through Congress can come in handy during some American government exams."

It's the best way to beat tech-savvy cheaters.

Not the Right Response

But banning digital media players is not the right response. In fact, it robs students of valuable learning opportunities. When I first began teaching more than 25 years ago, I enjoyed catching students cheating in class. Instead of cleverly concealing an iPod, students would just tape cheat sheets under a shirtsleeve or inside a vest or jacket, but it was the same idea. There came a point, though, when I realized that the problem was with my testing methodology, not with students compiling and concealing reference notes. I redefined what it meant to "cheat" in my classroom.

The typical school testing environment is artificial and contrived, with no real-world connection. Requiring students to take tests based only on what they can recall from memory forces us to make tests that require simple responses, not thoughtful ones. Thus, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, and true/false questions tend to dominate school testing. It isn't because these are the best measures of student knowledge; it's just the most logical way to test students who aren't allowed to use any reference materials during the test.

Time for Change

Confronted with this reality, I decided never again to give a "closed book" test. I encouraged my students to make detailed "cheat sheets," and we dedicated one entire side of the classroom as a "reference" area. Students brought in all the references they could find relative to the topics being studied in class, and I created tests focused on process over product, and on thinking over simple recall. It was the best way I knew to prepare my students for a world in which using what you know is far more important than the rote memorization of isolated facts.

Apple recently sold its one-millionth iPod. Millions of digital resources are now part of students' daily lives. Instead of banning them from classrooms, we should invite them in and investigate their educational potential. Just think how much deeper a test question about passing a bill through Congress might be if students could instantly call up the Schoolhouse Rock clip and other associated resources in answering it.

When I hear about school districts banning iPods for fear of cheating, I say, "Let 'em cheat-they'll learn more!" We just need to change the tests so it's no longer "cheating" to use digital media players as resources. It's time for "open iPod" tests.

Daniel E. Kinnaman is the publisher.