Why Is Plagiarism In Online Learning An Ethical Concern

If you take a class from your coach, professor or professor’s friend on a pretty popular online learning platform, you may think the work is legit. And if the class happens to be themed as a summer camp for adults with big hearts, who didn’t sign up for it?

Why Is Plagiarism In Online Learning An Ethical Concern

Gizmodo’s revelation of millions of people submitting hacked exams from a dark matter course might feel completely out of place in an era in which tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Uber are trying to end the discussion of ethics.

And yet, I think the glaring ethical greyness is precisely what makes these incidents so unusual. Why, in 2019, is it socially acceptable to expose the validity of some privately-funded degrees in the pursuit of public recognition? To understand that, you need to know a bit about dark matter, learn to look beyond the numbers on a spreadsheet, and see what the signs are.

Dark matter is a hypothetical subatomic particle that’s been theorized since the 1950s. Like all theories, it has plenty of skeptics, and is only vaguely predicted to exist. In particular, dark matter seems to lend itself to some very specific uses that overlap with both theoretical physicist-inspired technologies like superconductors and mass-satellite systems, but have never been incorporated into their budgets.

But, deep down, they both seem like plausible ways to gather the insights of thousands of volunteers who could do it for you for a pittance. They don’t require any special assembly of hardware, they could simply be housed online in a framework similar to sites like edX, Coursera, or Udacity. And, they could be completed in just a few weeks, making them accessible to anyone who so desired.

I came across this potential tool in a Netflix documentary, Tiny Apartment Home. The film follows some young physicists as they work on a variety of interesting-sounding hypothetical projects. Among them is a project that was only recently finished and involves mining data from some 3,300 dark matter sensors scattered around the world. They end up adding all the collected info to one standard report which is then approved by a number of other highly respected scientists.

Imagine having access to that sort of information, a million times. It can be played with and manipulated like any other data set, but, also like any other data set, it can be greatly manipulated with data manipulation techniques.

As the videos show, the experiment is executed on an incredibly small scale. The collective sample of data is too small to provide a description of how dark matter interacts. But each individual detector provides information about how much of a particle mass it generates, how fast it travels, and even how long it stays in contact with the detector. (The researchers were lucky that they could accommodate this because no one thought to experiment at all previously.)

It’s hard to say whether this is a successful system, but it is the kind of experimentation Dark Matter is famous for. But over time, that sort of experimental cluster-bombing of the final report might enable the creation of their own dark matter aggregate, independent of the public reports which provide this one-off stream of data.

So, it would seem, using the Internet to do this work is only more likely to happen. As this case demonstrated, the simple process of selling access to a database as a service actually makes it much easier to do; but, if the database’s infrastructure is too good, Dark Matter might not be able to create its own structure that isn’t built in to an open-source, GPL project.

But perhaps the most important reason that academics, right now, should be extremely vigilant about their commercial exploitation is the question of legitimacy.

This is a strange time in our society. Not long ago, the majority of citizens would have been appalled to see an all-white and male jury going for a Republican candidate for public office. One might reasonably argue that the only useful information I get online is opinion, but there are many real world examples of when I really want objective information, like on a big story or a complicated task.

Yes, there are many people out there with sloppy personal computing habits, but as we see with WikiLeaks, even though some people may not approve of their methods, no one argues that WikiLeaks necessarily has no right to publish what they published. And it’s a bit of a surprise to find that a 6,000-person bitcoin auction isn’t a PR disaster; people are more comfortable with a link on a webpage than they are with something buried in a small digital dark matter cylinder.

While everyone else has told us that it’s not okay to sell patient information, it’s apparently perfectly OK to offer your collective data at a discount rate to someone, even a medical imaging corporation, to help you get something better done with your money. Not many people would consider such a chance to essentially buy the meaning of our lives unethical, and yet most of the ethical agreements companies enter into are in the public interest.

With the growing influence of private industry, as well as online dark matter, it would be quite interesting to learn what some commentators deem a “win-win” situation.

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