Does economic inequality in a nation influence cheating in computing class?

November 1, 2011 at 9:19 am 4 comments

I recently watched this TED talk, and it’s been influencing my thinking a lot over the last week.  I don’t often follow links to TED talks, but I’m really glad that I did on this one. It’s by Richard Wilkinson on how income inequality in a country influences social good.

Wilkinson looks at a variety of social good variables, from number of prisoners per 100K citizens (above), to amount of trust in a society, to number of violent crimes.  He finds no correlation between the gross domestic product per capita and these social goods — richer and poorer countries have these problems.  But then, he creates a new index: a social inequality index.  He takes the gross domestic product per capita in the top quintile of the country, and divides it by the GDP/capita in the bottom quintile.

The social good variables completely correlate with the inequality index, as you can see from the screen cap on prison populations.  Watch the video.  He suggests that what leads to social unrest is not the wealth, but the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in a given society.

I wonder if this has any implications for we computing educators.  I was particularly struck with the close correlation between trust and inequality.  One of our rampant problems is cheating.  I don’t know any multinational studies of cheating.  Do students cheat less in countries where there is less inequality?  Do you cheat more if you think that the system is stacked against you, and you need an edge to get ahead of the competition?  Note that Wilkinson’s data does explain differences between US States and Canadian provinces.  (I also note sadly that Atlanta was just judged by the US Census as being one of the most inequitable cities in the country.)

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark Urban-Lurain  |  November 1, 2011 at 11:38 am

    There have been several studies linking academic performance to economic disparity. Condron (2011) showed a very strong relationship between the Gini index of economic disparity with performance on PISA standardized Math and Science scores. Looking over those graphs, the US falls on near the regression line. This is good evidence that blaming the schools/teachers and trying to mimic the SCHOOLS of high performing countries is unlikely to be fruitful. Easier to blame schools/teachers than change the economic structure of the country.

    Condron, D. J. (2011). Egalitarianism and educational excellence: Compatible goals for affluent societies? Educational Researcher, 40(2), 47-55.

  • 2. Mike Byrne  |  November 2, 2011 at 11:52 am

    First, thanks for the link to this. I hadn’t seen this TED talk (I also mostly don’t watch TED talks, though Adam Savage’s is amazing) and it is incredibly thought-provoking. There were pieces of this that were incredibly unsurprising (Scandinavia and Japan as world leaders in lack of social ills) and others that were (I didn’t realize the UK so was so close to the US in income inequity).

    I do find your perspective on it pretty funny, though. Here we have income inequity related to very serious social ills–murder, infant mortality–and you ask if it correlates with cheating in CS courses? That seems… not to the same scale.

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  November 2, 2011 at 12:53 pm

      Agreed — not at all the same scale. But on the other hand, his point is that income inequality influences us at an individual level, e.g., our sense of trust. Issues like rate of incarceration or murder are macroscopic views. Are there microscopic effects, too? In CS Ed, cheating is a huge issue. It’s commonplace. Why? As Mark says in his comment, is the reason structural? Could something like income inequality being influencing the small scale (not not easily explained) effect of rampant cheating?

  • 4. Elizabeth Patitsas  |  November 4, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    If you’re looking for another Ted Talk, here’s one on cheating that you may find interesting: (the discussion on cheating starts about 4 minutes in)


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