Berkeley High’s hackers offer a learning opportunity

By Lisa Petrides

Lisa Petrides is President and Founder of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME), a non-profit educational research institute located in Half Moon Bay, CA.

At Berkeley High School recently, 32 students were suspended for breaking into the school’s digital attendance system and changing records for absences and tardiness. The irregularities, which started in October 2011, were only discovered in December, when the new dean of attendance intensified his efforts on improving attendance by focusing on these records. Since attendance contributes to the grades of students, as well as to whether or not a student graduates from Berkeley High, the motivation for changing a spotty attendance record might seem obvious.

What is not evident however, are the reasons behind why these students were regularly missing school. For example, we know that students say that they drop out of high school or skip class frequently because they are bored. Either the course material is not challenging enough or engaging, or the pace of learning is too slow, or perhaps even too fast.

As a researcher, I want more data. I want to know whether these Berkeley High School “cheaters” were in AP classes or students who were struggling academically. I’m wondering if there were particular classes being skipped, a certain time of the day? And were there any correlations with age, parental income level, or other demographics?

While I certainly do not condone cheating or breaking the law, I think that answers to these questions might help teachers and administrators focus on solutions rather than only penalties. Are courses being redesigned using e-learning tools and outside mentors to make them more challenging and engaging? If first-period classes were more consistently skipped, could students be allowed to take an extra afternoon class instead? If there is a problem with getting transportation to the school, could ride sharing be encouraged? And perhaps, given the lack of funding for school counselors these days, could high school seniors be trained to mentor their younger classmates, who often feel lost in a school with more than 3,000 students?

Without going into why it took the school officials almost three months to discover the falsified records, one wonders about the level of computer skills required by the student hackers. Was it a simple case of guessing a password or two, as one newspaper report suggested? Or did it require the technology savvy to actually hack into a system? Or was it simply that the passwords were written down in some administrator’s paper file, which was left unattended while a student was able to access it?

If a higher level of technical skill was involved in finding the right password, these kids might be good with computers. And considering they charged their classmates a nominal fee and got over 50 of them to pay, certainly there are entrepreneurial skills to be tapped and put to a better use than cheating. Perhaps a course in computer science could be required as part of the penalty for breaking and entering. Not only would these students be given a chance to redeem themselves by creating better security programs for the very system they broke into, they would also be given the opportunity to become high achievers in a field that interests them.

I think it is important to remember that these students were not falsifying actual test answers, as many of the more noteworthy cases we have seen as of late. And by more thoroughly understanding why the students did what they did, perhaps this can be used as a learning opportunity to understand the ways in which this was, to put it in biological terms, an evolutionary response to a challenging or unnatural external constraint. With this framing, perhaps “cheaters” can be converted into achievers and also improve the educational environment for everyone.

This article was first published on Lisa is Learning. Berkeleyside welcomes submissions of op-ed articles of 500 to 800 words. We ask that we are given first refusal to publish. Topics should be Berkeley-related and local authors are preferred. Please email submissions to us. Berkeleyside will publish op-ed pieces at its discretion.