Time Banking III: Cheating and Meta-Cheating

One of the problems with setting up any new marking system is that, especially when you’re trying to do something a bit out of the ordinary, you have to make sure that you don’t produce a system that can be gamed or manipulated to let people get an unfair advantage. (Students are very resourceful when it comes to this – anyone who has received a mysteriously corrupted Word document of precisely the right length and with enough relevant strings to look convincing, on more than one occasion from the same student and they then are able to hand up a working one the next Monday, knows exactly what I’m talking about.)

As part of my design, I have to be clear to the students what I do and don’t consider to be reasonable behaviour (returning to Dickinson and McIntyre, I need to be clear in my origination and leadership role). Let me illustrate this with an anecdote from decades ago.

In the early 90s, I helped to write and run a number of Multi User Dungeons (MUDs) – the text-based fore-runners of the Massively Multiplayer On-line Role Playing Games, such as World of Warcraft. The games had very little graphical complexity and we spent most of our time writing the code that drove things like hitting orcs with swords or allowing people to cast spells. Because of the many interactions between the software components in the code, it was possible for unexpected things to happen – not just bugs where code stopped working but strange ‘features’ where things kept working but in an odd way. I knew a guy, let’s call him K, who was a long-term player of MUDs. If the MUD was any good, he’d not only played it, he’d effectively beaten it. He knew every trick, every lurk, the best way to attack a monster but, more interestingly, he had a nose for spotting errors in the code and taking advantage of them. One time, in a game we were writing, we spotted K walking around with something like 20-30 ’empty’ water bottles on him. (As game writers, wizards, we could examine any object in the game, which included seeing what players were carrying.)

A bit like this, but all on one person’s shoulders and no wheels.

This was weird. Players had a limited amount of stuff that they could carry, and K should have had no reason to carry those bottles. When we examined him, we discovered that we’d made an error in the code so that, when you drank from a bottle and emptied it, the bottle ended up weighing LESS THAN NOTHING. (It was a text game and our testing wasn’t always fantastic – I learnt!) So K was carrying around the in-game equivalent of helium balloons that allowed him to carry a lot more than he usually would.

Of course, once we detected it, we fixed the code and K stopped carrying so many empty bottles. (Although, I have no doubt that he personally checked each and every container we put into the game from that point on to see if could get it to happen again.) Did we punish him? No. We knew that K would need some ‘flexibility’ in his exploration of the game, knowing that he would press hard against the rubber sheet to see how much he could bend reality, but also knowing that he would spot problems that would take us weeks or months of time to find on our own. We took him into our new and vulnerable game knowing that if he tried to actually break or crash the game, or share the things he’d learned, we’d close off his access. And he knew that too.

Had I placed a limit in play that said “Cheating detected = Immediate Booting from the game”, K would have left immediately. I suspect he would have taken umbrage at the term ‘cheating’, as he generally saw it as “this is the way the world works – it’s not my fault that your world behaves strangely”. (Let’s not get into this debate right now, we’re not in the educational plagiarism/cheating space right now.)

We gave K some exploration space, more than many people would feel comfortable with, but we maintained some hard pragmatic limits to keep things working and we maintained the authority required to exercise these limits. In return, K helped us although, of course, he played for the fun of the game and, I suspect, the joy of discovering crazy bugs. However, overall, this approach saved us effort and load, and allowed us to focus on other things with our limited resources. Of course, to make this work required careful orientation and monitoring on our behalf. Nothing, after all, comes for free.

If I’d asked K to fill out forms describing the bugs he’d found, he’d never have done it. If I’d had to write detailed test documents for him, I wouldn’t have had time to do anything else. But it also illustrates something that I have to be very cautious of, which I’ve embodied as the ‘no cheating/gaming’ guideline for Time Banking. One of the problems with students at early development stages is that they can assume that their approach is right, or even assert that their approach is the correct one, when it is not aligned with our goals or intentions at all. Therefore, we have to be clear on the goals and open about our intentions. Given that the goal of Time Banking is to develop mature approach to time management, using the team approach I’ve already discussed, I need to be very clear in the guidance I give to students.

However, I also need to be realistic. There is a possibility that, especially on the first run, I introduce a feature in either the design or the supporting system that allows students to do something that they shouldn’t. So here’s my plan for dealing with this:

  1. There is a clear no-cheating policy. Get caught doing anything that tries to subvert the system or get you more hours in any other way than submitting your own work early and it’s treated as a cheating incident and you’re removed from the time bank.
  2. Reporting a significant fault in the system, that you have either deduced, or observed, is worth 24 hours of time to the first person who reports it. (Significant needs definition but it’s more than typos.)

I need the stick. Some of my students need to know that the stick is there, even if the stick is never needed, but I really can’t stand the stick. I have always preferred the carrot. Find me a problem and you get an automatic one-day extension, good for any assignment in the bank. Heck, I could even see my way clear to making this ‘liftable’ hours – 24 hours you can hand on to a friend if you want. If part of your team thinking extends to other people and, instead of a gifted student handing out their assignment, they hand out some hours, I have no problem with that. (Mr Pragmatism, of course, places a limit on the number of unearned hours you can do this with, from the recipient’s, not the donor’s perspective. If I want behaviour to change, then people have to act to change themselves.)

My design needs to keep the load down, the rewards up but, most importantly, the rewards have to move the students towards the same goals as the primary activity or I will cause off-task optimisation and I really don’t want to do that.

I’m working on a discussion document to go out to people who think this is a great idea, a terrible idea, the worst idea ever, something that they’d like to do, so that I can bring all of the thoughts back together and, as a group of people dedicated to education, come up with something that might be useful – OR, and it’s a big or, come up with the dragon slaying notion that kills time banking stone dead and provides the sound theoretical and evidence-based support as to why we must and always should use deadlines. I’m prepared for one, the other, both or neither to be true, along with degrees along the axis.


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