Hacking Homework

“Hacking” is a verb that’s attached itself to all kinds of nouns these days, generating phrases meant to imply working around standard operating procedures in order to achieve an end result as good or better (and often more quickly) than what you’d get by following the rules.

The concept obviously originates in the computer programming realm where “hacking,” once used to describe cyber breaking-and-entering (or some other form of nefarious activity), seems to have evolved into a generic term for working around needless barriers or strict procedures to get the job done without “The Man” telling you how to do it.

If you pop over to the Udemy online learning site and punch “Hacking” into their search bar, you’ll find courses on hacking everything from growth and sales to dating and sleep, with each one promising to show you workarounds to problems such as closed doors, failed romance or the human body’s alleged need to shut down for eight hours every night.

In some cases, these are simple “How To” courses which mirrors the fact that phrases such as “Facebook Hacking” often refer to nothing more than using the platform effectively (vs. penetrating its code base).  But as a meme, “hacking” is meant to imply that the best way to accomplish a task might be through doing a Kobiyashi Maru vs. doing what you’re told.

I thought of this the other day when I caught myself working through some homework for my Science and Cooking course in a way that seemed to invoke the hacking methodology.  The homework was a problem set from a unit covering Viscosity and Polymers which I have to admit I didn’t follow all that closely, probably because the jellied foods they were preparing to demonstrate the week’s scientific principles looked positively revolting.

Whether it was the sight of olive oil gummi “treats” or just Senior Year burnout that got me slacking, by the time I had to start doing homework problems I realized that I hadn’t written down any notes and couldn’t quite remember how the Equation of the Week [clap, clap, clap] was supposed to be applied.  But rather than redo the lessons (and expose myself to those viscous dishes once again), I decided to see if I could work my way through the problems on my own.

After all, I’ve got a science degree (even if it’s a little dusty/rusty), and I knew I could easily look up the subjects covered by the test question online.  And if that failed, there were always the discussion boards to turn to.  Now I didn’t do any searches for someone else’s answers, but rather reserved my digging to just looking for examples, data and prompts that could get me moving in the right direction.  But while I was doing something more honorable than cheating, I was definitely doing something less robust than putting information I had learned to work.

In fact, I was hacking homework, which in this case meant trying to grab just enough information or track down just enough guidance to get the questions right – even if I could do so without fully understanding the concepts those questions were meant to measure.  So even if I scored well on that week’s assignment, it would not reflect successful learning of the material.

I suspect that the issue of hacking homework goes beyond one person’s experience on a single MOOC – and probably transcends MOOCs to cover learning via any modality.  For students today have access to the world’s greatest library – the Internet – on their hip at any given moment, meaning everything from guidance to “the answers” are always just a Google search away.  And even students who are diligent and honest can find themselves doing things that fall somewhere in between cheating and doing scrupulous work.

For example, if you need a quote from a book to illustrate a point you are making in a paper, should you draw only from books you know well enough to understand what you’re looking for, or instead do an e-book search within a book you haven’t read to find a quote that features the right word combination?  Both options might lead to the same result (a paper featuring properly illustrative quotes), and automated searching is certainly more efficient than thumbing through a familiar tome page-by-page.  But do the two different ways of getting to the same place results in equivalent learning experiences?

As an educational professional and parent, I’ve come to appreciate the value and quality of educational technology and online learning resources.  But as a student I’ve come to appreciate that they also have a downside, particularly in the way they allow a student to look like they’ve learned something even when all they’ve really learned is how to hack.

Anyway back to class.  And as it turns out those oil gums we learned about last week were actually a suspension of one liquid in another, meaning they will be making a reappearance in this week’s lessons on emulsions. Yum!

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