Cheating karma

I‘ve used variations on a karma system in a number of classes over the last few years, but none as large as the 100-person “Media in the Information Age” last semester. It was something of a trial run, and there were imperfections. I guess it ranked the equivalent of a “revise and resubmit.” Two clear failures:

1. Built in competition among students. Since it was a curved class, giving points to others basically meant a hit to your own grade. This hit was so tiny as to have been inconsequential, at least at an individual level, but students made the rational decision to withhold karma in many cases because of this small disincentive.

2. People cheated. They colluded in giving karma to one another. In one case, a couple of students gave almost every point they had to one another. They each received a few points from the instructors and one or two from outside students, but they were trying to work the system. One of the rules of the system was that students could only give a single point for a posting. But this was on the honor system. You were also not allowed to give yourself points, which one of these people tried three times. The latter was not on the honor system–the program stopped and warned you if you tried.

At the end, I had to go through by hand and take away points that had been given multiple times. There were some minor offenders, which could easily have been accidental, and then these two major offenders. Once these were taken away, I got an angry email from one of the major offenders which indicated that since the system was flawed, he should be given free reign to work it however he wanted.

As an aside, although I demand no more respect as a prof than I would expect to get as a “regular” person, that respect is afforded less and less. Students increasingly see us as mere bureaucrats standing in the way of their A. Part of that is a generation of kids who were raised by parents who thought society owed them something. Many of these students have a sense of entitlement that is out of whack with reality. (And so do their parents, who more and more often are actually contacting professors on their children’s behalf, as if they were grade-schoolers.) This has been a problem in private schools for a while, but it is disappointing to see it in a public university. If these students are entering a work world treating their salaries as they have grades–something that they have an inherent right to–they will have a rough time of it. (Wow, that sounded a lot like a bitter capitalist, but it’s true.) Part of this feeling about profs probably comes from the way we behave in large classes. We are exasperated by the importance grades play in the lives of our students, yet we are drawn into the game of using them to “make” students read or discuss or come to lecture. Bah!

As for karma, I will be using it next semester, but in a much more restricted way. Karma will not be the same as course points. Unlike this semester, they will be entirely separate entities. Students will receive a certain number of course points for being among the body of participants in a discussion, and then more if they also receive a large number of karma points.

In essence, the discussion board will be greatly de-emphasized in comparison with this semester. The students, by and large, liked the idea, but it needs more work before it’s ready for prime time.

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10 Comments

  1. Posted 6/17/2003 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    I just read this entry by way of Jill Walker’s blog, and I find it very interesting and useful. I’ve been thinking of adopting a similar strategy in my literature classes, under the goal of structuring a class like a game. Your write-up of your experience gives me much to think about. From a practical point of view, how did you implement the online karma system? What were the nuts and bolts, some sort of database?

  2. Posted 6/17/2003 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Whatever you do, people will beat the system. If you give them three points per week, all they need is a group of four people. That way they can give one point to each of the three others, and everyone will get three points.

  3. Posted 6/18/2003 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    I suppose if you define your desired learning outcome as being able to play the games of academia (or life) that might be fine, Robert?

    I absolutely love the idea of using karma points like this but there do seem to be rather a lot of problems with it… I’d love to see the idea evolve :)

  4. Posted 7/9/2003 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    I actually did use a plug-in for Moveable Type for my Media Law class the following semester. Take a look at the site for the class. If you click on the comments, you will see a very Slashdot-like -1 to 5 system, though without filtering.

    At some point here, I will write up my experiences over the last few years in using karma in the classroom.

  5. Posted 7/9/2003 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    It seems you could find a simple solution to the problem of two students giving all their points to each other. Weight the points so that 10 points from 10 different people are worth considerably more than 10 points from 1 person.

  6. Posted 7/9/2003 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Tim: That’s a good idea. It turned out that I went the Slashdot way and allowed people to give negative points if they thought a post was over-rated. This actually worked out pretty well.

  7. Posted 7/10/2003 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    I love this idea and I am a 22-year old grad student. I will have to review it some more, but with some minor tweaks this could truly be effective.

  8. Posted 7/10/2003 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    This is a truly interesting grading concept. I’m currently attending a community college and have noticed that so many teachers have highly subjective grading policies. This could be one way to smooth out any inequalities in their systems.

  9. Posted 8/15/2003 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    I’m just now following up on this thread. What’s the plug-in you used for Movable Type?

  10. Posted 8/16/2003 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t really an MT plug-in, but rather a bunch of hastily written scripts that keep track (at a very basic level) of who ups and downs the karma. A bit of a mess really. Having had little success with this approach I am unlikely to clean up the scripts.

One Trackback

  1. By jill/txt » unsyllabus on 8/13/2008 at 5:15 am

    […] other’s contributions karma points, much as Slashdot and other discussion boards allow. This didn’t entirely work, as he explained in this blog post, but, well, don’t you love people that not only try out interesting ideas like that but also […]

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