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.

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  • ChrisSy Mamma

    All that the author suggests make sense, but the most intriguing part of the scam was that this was NOT grade related but attendance-related. In one sense, as tardiness or particularly lack of attendance affects how much money a school or district receives, it would be in the district’s own best interests, so to speak, to let slide the fact that some students actually increased (presumably) student attendance, thus insuring no decrease in school funding.

    The students motivation is apparent–and again one might presume that the ringleader(s) realized that bette rattendance records would behoove them personally academically, not withstanding the fact that they made money selling their service.

    My guess is that the participants in the scam were students with a measure of academic achievement and had plans to continue and pursue their education. Unless, bizarrely, someone in the administration fixed the records for the sake of school funding and blamed a kid scapegoat. Ridiculous.

  • The proposal to position a computer science course as a penalty is offensive.  There is a huge difference between being a USER of computers and someone who CREATES with computers.  Shoulder surfing a password is just a deviant form of the first and requires no particular skill beyond moral elasticity.  Lauding someone as a user is like congratulating someone for wearing a certain designer’s clothing — they didn’t MAKE anything — they just bought it! 

    Computer science courses position students for the work of creating by teaching algorithms, data structures, and discrete mathematics.  It’s not some gulag for rejects (unless you ask a mathematician). 

    Following this same reasoning, we should see punitive fashion design courses for people who shoplift at clothing stores, mandatory music instruction for those who steal mp3s, and forced journalism courses for Mayor Bates.

    If you want a glimpse of hacker/maker culture, check out the New Yorker profile of the kid who cracked the iPhone and PS3.  Those are real skills.  Stealing a teacher’s password is not more difficult than stealing his checkbook, as Billy Keys can attest.

  • bgal4

    1. Students used a staff password, that is hardly hacking.

    The most likely reason students accessed the student records management system is FEAR of their freedoms being taken away as the result of NEW  ENFORCEMENT actions.
    The  “learning moment”  is accountability. Student, staff and administrators are adapting to a system change in which accountability  for education agency requirements regarding attendance is finally happening. Does this expert know how many years it has taken the school and district to make this organizational leap and avoid any further audits or monitoring by state agencies?

    Students who paid for or had access via a staff password were acting out of :

    1. FEAR that parents /guardians will receive  one of those pesky letters notifying them of chronic truancy and requesting a informal conference or a formal process though a SART.

    *remember  only this year BHS complied with the ed code requirement to mail a letter  at 3 or more unexcused absences, this is a level beyond the auto-dialer home contact.

    2. FEAR of  being denied the OPPORTUNITY to continue  in the fall.

    This past fall (again this represent new enforcement actions) dozens of students were not allowed to re-enroll based on violating district policies which require students maintain a  2.0 GPA, positive discipline and attendance.

    Remember that when crowding occurs at BHS there is additional pressure to shift  struggling who are chronically truant to  the more structured alternative program at B-Tech.

    This EXPERT skipped past the most basic question, what has changed at BHS.

    That would be an adult change, ENFORCEMENT.  Now the students have to change and be accountable.

    Rights come with Responsibilities kids.

  • bgal4

    Education expert states ” Since attendance contributes to the grades of students”

    again local context matters and proves this statement false, since BHS dropped the grading policy based on unexcused absences.

    Look these kids cheated in a lazy way, they could have provided the attendance office with in the required time-frame a falsified note EXCUSING the absence.  They went back into the system because they missed that opportunity or knew that the Dean of Attendance was onto them.

  • The Sharkey

    1. Students used a staff password, that is hardly hacking.

    An extremely important point that many people seem to be missing.
    I’m curious about how they got the password, but it’s more likely that a student simply copied it from a physical document than brute-force password cracking.

  • Shandaotash

    The student who had the password (the source, “ground-zero”, or whathaveyou) was a staff proctor. This student is a classmate of my daughter–I asked her about the incident, and she told me how it started. 
    This kid is a very nice kid; perhaps a kid who wanted to be liked by their peers. This kid really seemed to have little concept as to how “wrong” things would go. 
    My daughter told me: in class one day, other students began questioning proctor student about their duties. Proctor student vaguely described their duties. A canny fellow student asked about attendance records etc., whereupon a group of fellow students (some intimidating) began wheedling/pestering/badgering proctor student about THE PASSWORD. Proctor student looked uncomfortable, and stated that proctor student would get in big trouble.. and a number of fellow students keep pushing. Proctor student looked briefly uncomfortable, and (as my daughter said, “probably thought ..[fellow students].. would like ..[proctor student].. better”) gave up THE PASSWORD. 
    Eventually, THE PASSWORD was passed around, sold, bartered for, 
    I asked my daughter if she copied it down/got it (I know she didn’t use it because I lurk Powerschool, and her attendance records), and she replied, “No. I thought about it, but I didn’t want to risk being kicked out of school or having you get mad at me. Plus, it seemed so opportunistic of everyone.”