New York City
March 2003

Tutoring and Technology
by Dr. Nathaniel Frank

Not long ago, while tutoring students from a prestigious private school in Manhattan, one of my students brazenly popped a CD-ROM into his computer which revealed “answers” to review questions for an upcoming exam. The file, which was riddled with errors, came courtesy of former students on the football team who had clearly not been chosen for their attention to academic detail. It was an unfortunate case of the blind teaching the blind, with no adult intervention and no semblance of remorse among students eager to cut corners.

Around the same time, the school confronted a seemingly unrelated spate of plagiarism, which resulted in disciplinary measures for fifteen students. Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, my student was among them. School authorities responded by banning these and other students from using tutors, based on the presumption that too many tutors were doing too much of the students’ work.

If it seems to you that this punishment does not fit the crime, then you are a cl7ose reader. To this day, I have not been able to grasp why tutors were implicated in the plagiarism scandal. But the unfortunate upshot was that the students were left with less adult guidance and a greater temptation to rely on technology—divorced from ethical principles—to get them through their coursework.

As long as there have been students, there has been cheating. But the march of technology has facilitated the kind of intellectual dishonesty that used to require both skill and bravado to accomplish. Many universities now have networks that let students surf the web for information while using laptops in the classroom; connected palm pilots let friends beam notes—or answers—to each other in the middle of classes or tests; in short, computer technology has allowed students to share information at the speed of light. In the past, accessing this information required a resourcefulness that was almost as impressive as it was unethical. Now, cutting corners—and even outright cheating—is as easy as clicking a mouse.

Technology has always challenged humans to harness its power while containing its tendency to govern those it was meant to serve. When people rise to this challenge, they can integrate technology into their world in a tremendously beneficial way. How do we do this effectively?

Computers are a vital part of young people’s lives today. Adults need to recognize this and commit to introducing computer technology in a way that habituates students to its interactive aspects rather than its capacity to hand out answers. When I tutor students, I use old-fashioned methods of Socratic dialogue, self-critique and plenty of practice in critical reading and precision writing. But I also go over to the computer and mentor the proper use of technology. My goal is that when students see a CD-ROM, they’ll approach it as a partner in learning, not a hired hand.

As educators, we need to ensure that the wealth of information now available to students serves as a basis for engaged and proactive learning rather than a shortcut to passing grades. We need to integrate technology into our teaching methods, so as to instill proper habits in today’s students. With that as our goal, we can hope that new technology will facilitate, rather than impede, the unchanging aim of shaping not just skilled practitioners, but good citizens who know how to learn

Dr. Nathaniel Frank, an Adjunct Professor of History at New School and New York Universities, is a tutoring partner at the Teaching Collective. He can be reached at NF15@NYU.EDU or 718-624-5999

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