Commentary: Cheating—Or Postmodern Learning?

Duke's B-school scandal points up the fuzzy ethics of a collaborative world

On Apr. 27, the dean of Duke's business school had the unfortunate task of announcing that nearly 10% of the Class of 2008 had been caught cheating on a take-home final exam. The scandal, which has cast yet another pall over the leafy, Gothic campus, is already going down as the biggest episode of alleged student deception in the B-school's history.

Almost immediately, the questions started swirling. The accused MBAs were, on average, 29 years old. They were the cut-and-paste generation, the champions of Linux. Before going to B-school, they worked in corporations for an average of six years. They did so at a time when their bosses were trumpeting the brave new world of open source, where one's ability to aggregate (or rip off) other people's intellectual property was touted as a crucial competitive advantage.

It's easy to imagine the explanations these MBAs, who are mulling an appeal, might come up with. Teaming up on a take-home exam: That's not academic fraud, it's postmodern learning, wiki style. Text-messaging exam answers or downloading essays onto iPods: That's simply a wise use of technology.

One can understand the confusion. This is a generation that came of age nabbing music off Napster and watching bootlegged Hollywood blockbusters in their dorm rooms. "What do you mean?" you can almost hear them saying. "We're not supposed to share?"


That's not to say that university administrators should ignore unethical behavior, if it in fact occurred. But in this wired world, maybe the very notion of what constitutes cheating has to be reevaluated. The scandal at Duke points to how much the world has changed, and how academia and corporations are confused about it all, sending split messages.

We're told it's all about teamwork and shared information. But then we're graded and ranked as individuals. We assess everybody as single entities. But then we plop them into an interdependent world and tell them their success hinges on creative collaboration.

The new culture of shared information is vastly different from the old, where hoarding information was power. But professors—and bosses, for that matter—need to be able to test individual ability. For all the talk about workforce teamwork, there are plenty of times when a person is on his or her own, arguing a case, preparing a profit and loss statement, or writing a research report.

Still, many believe that a rethinking of the assessment process is in store. The Stanford University Design School, for example, is so collaborative that "it would be impossible to cheat," says D-school professor Robert I. Sutton. "If you found somebody to help you write a group project, in our view that's a sign of an inventive team member who gets stuff done. If you found someone to do work for free who was committed to open source, we'd say, 'Wow, that was smart.' One group of students got the police to help them with a school project to build a roundabout where there were a lot of bike accidents. Is that cheating?"

That's food for thought at a time when learning is becoming more and more of a social process embedded in a larger network. This is in no way a pass on those who consciously break the rules. With countries aping American business practices, a backlash against an ethically rudderless culture can't happen soon enough. But the saga at Duke raises an interesting question: In the age of Twitter, a social network that keeps users in constant streaming contact with one another, what is cheating?

By Michelle Conlin

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