New tool promotes learning and discourages cheating through dynamic assignments

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new tool designed by researchers in Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) is helping to address an age-old question in academia.

“When there is an assignment, how do we know students aren’t cheating?” posited Chris Gamrat, an instructional designer in IST.

The answer, they hope, is PolyLab.

Polymorphic Homework and Laboratory Assignments, or PolyLab for short, is a piece of software created by the researchers that generates new and distinct elements for test or homework questions. Unlike shuffling answer or question order on an assignment, their tool identifies the critical aspects of a question and generates new information for each individual assignment, eliminating the opportunity for students to copy answers from their peers.

“Every student gets a different iteration of the exercise,” explained Nick Giacobe, an assistant teaching professor in IST and one of PolyLab’s developers.

The software was first used in IST 220, an introductory class on networking and telecommunications that Giacobe teaches. In the class, students are often tasked with analyzing a network’s packet capture, or “pcap,” files, to investigate the network’s security vulnerabilities.

Using PolyLab, if a student was asked to find a certain IP address within a pcap file, a new exercise can be generated an infinite number of times with different information to find. By creating a new set of data with each assignment, the student is able to further hone their networking skills by continuously encountering a new exercise.

Funded by an IST seed grant and developed by Giacobe and Jungwoo Ryoo, professor of IST at Penn State Altoona, PolyLab’s mechanics were largely created by Ryan Kohler, an IST student in the college’s Integrated Undergraduate Graduate program.

PolyLab’s purpose is to not only discourage students from cheating but also to empower them to help their peers discover the solution themselves.  

“We’re changing cheaters into helpers,” Giacobe said. “Now, instead of looking over your neighbor’s shoulder, that person says ‘here’s how you can find the answer.’”

The tool also helps instructors create additional opportunities for the students to engage with the material.

“Obviously, an easy way to randomize assignments is to create an entirely new lab or homework assignment every semester,” Giacobe said. “But that’s a huge burden for instructors, especially when you teach the class for several semesters.”

“And if you were just rearranging answers, you’d need to keep track of what version you sent to every single student,” he added.

PolyLab reduces that workload by allowing instructors to grade more efficiently because the programming assesses the answers based on the unique parameters assigned to each student’s assignment.

As he prepares to graduate in May, Kohler said the creation of PolyLab brought a new depth to the technical skills he’s built through his IST education.

“This is how I learned Python,” he said of the programming language. “Since then, I’ve been able to do a lot of projects with it.”

The foundation of the first assignments built in PolyLab was inspired by a program called Bit-Twist, which modifies packets of information sent and received over the internet.

“But Bit-Twist was designed for only a one-time modification, so we programmed a back-end that can do multiple iterations so there is a different file for each student,” Kohler explained.

Kohler added that this project also gave him a new perspective on instructional design.

“Before, I only saw it from the student perspective,” he said. “But now I’m thinking ‘What is the goal of this assignment? What concepts do students need to learn and understand?’ Then I need to make changes to the file in line with those goals.”

Kohler and Chris Gamrat, an instructional designer in IST’s Office of Learning Design, recently presented the software’s concept and functionality to attendees of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology Conference in Jacksonville, Florida. The group walked away from the conference with new ideas for potential collaborations and uses for the tool.

One such application came to light after Kohler spoke with a representative from the United States Army, who theorized a use for practical scenarios in medical exams. If a medical student is asked to treat a theoretical patient on paper, each person would receive a different set of symptoms and a unique diagnosis to offer. 

“That can also help create these more dynamic and realistic scenarios for students,” Kohler explained.

The team hopes to expand the use of the tool throughout IST, and eventually integrate it widely into Canvas, Penn State’s learning management system.

“We’re going to continue pushing this concept into a variety of courses and exercises because the need to connect students with course materials will never end,” Giacobe said. 

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Director of Marketing and Communications, College of Information Sciences and Technology

Last Updated January 19, 2018