Underground Back Channels

During first couple years at my first real job post-college, a friend of a friend would IM me questions about how to solve computer problems for which he could not figure out the answers. These requests started as me doing the work for him with dubious promises of doing the same for me. (I knew he’d gotten a job over his head and making 2.3x more than me. I also knew he did not know anything about my work and could not help me.) When I did not bite to do this, he shifted to giving him the answers and settled for all that I was willing to do: point him in the right direction. Having worked in a library, pointing patrons and friends in the right direction was something I was used to doing.

This conversation was not officially sanctioned by either of our employers. Neither of us told our bosses about these conversations. Was I leaking the intellectual capital of my employer? Was this friend of a friend leaking his employer’s intellectual capital to me? In any case, it would probably be considered an underground interaction. My boss at the time encouraged my professional participation on web technology email lists as helping others with my knowledge and experience gave me access to others who could do the same. The difference was the lists were sanctioned while the friend of a friend was not no matter how similar.

The Learning Black Market suggests students today use Facebook as a private back channel to classmates for pointers in the right direction on how to work on class assignments. They also secretly use Wikipedia despite it being forbidden as a source. When I was a student, the same sort of back channel activity for pointers would happen but face-to-face in the hallway was the preferred place not Facebook. Instead of Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica was the preferred first source. (Gosh, I am old.) Just like students today are told Wikipedia is not an allowable reference and not to ever use it yet they do anyway, EB was not an allowable reference and yet I saw my classmates using it to figure out terms that would help them find allowable references. Students today sometimes use Wikipedia for the same reason.

Educators want the students to take their time and deliberately work through the assignments the hard way so they learn the most through the process. Students want to get the assignment done in the least amount of time while still making a good grade. Educators lack the oversight to force students to behave except to detect plagiarism or cheating in the produced artifacts.

Because students are engaging in forbidden activity these conversations are underground. Well, the smart ones. Some are having these conversations on Twitter where one party of the conversation is not private and anyone (like a nosy DBA like myself) can see it. If they are used to quasi-cheating, does real cheating become easier? That might explain much of what I see.

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