The Digital Version of Throwing Out the Baby with the Bathwater?

In the United States and, for that matter, many other places around the world, schools are struggling to address a new scourge: ChatGPT. Over the past few months, there have been dozens of articles about schools either banning or otherwise restricting that tool and similar generative AI-powered ones. According to a Forbes report, for example, school districts in New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, and many other places have explicitly instructed students to not use ChatGPT and have blocked the tool from school-owned devices. (New York, for what it’s worth, recently reversed its ban.) Perhaps that’s an overreaction to something new, perhaps it is a prudent response to an education-changing tool — reasonable people can hold differing opinions on the matter.

But ChatGPT isn’t unique in the battle between schooling and technology. Other digital resources — Google, Wikipedia, and other taken-for-granted aspects of our always-online world — have similarly changed how students approach assignments and how educators teach. Efforts to limit the use of those tools are, similarly, nothing new. And usually, education policymakers find a solution that allows students to grow with the tool, rather than making them pretend that they live in a world without such innovations — even if it may take a while. After all, you can’t just pretend things like Google, Wikipedia, ChatGPT, and for that matter, the Internet do not exist. 

Unless you’re in some Northern African or Middle Eastern countries. In which case, you don’t need to pretend. Because when it’s time for high schoolers to take their final exams, there’s a good chance that the government might just shut off the Internet.

And not just for high schoolers — for everyone in the nation.

For high school students in some of these nations, grades can be destiny; how one performs on these exams dictates future educational and employment opportunities. As the Economist reported in 2018, “students are under enormous pressure to do well in the tests, which often determine whether they can continue their education at a good university. A splendid grade may mean a scholarship abroad.” As a result, there’s a large incentive to cheat, particularly in ways where you’re unlikely to be caught. There’s no better way to guarantee yourself a high grade than to know the questions of the test — and the right answers — before the test is actually administered. And as it turns out, that was exactly what Syria was up against as recently as 2016. That year, a researcher named Doug Madory outlined the problem, using Syria as an example: “exam questions would begin appearing on social media 30-60 minutes before each exam, thus allowing cheaters to circulate correct answers and compromise the integrity of the test.” And Syria and similar nations can’t have that happen.

The good news (okay, maybe “good news” is the wrong turn of phrase there) is that Syria, Algeria, and similar have a solution, one you won’t find in the United States or many other Western nations: there is only one major telecom company in each country, and that country is subject to government control. Internet blackouts can occur whenever the government sees fit. Syria used that power at pivotal moments during its civil war, but it extended to high school examinations as well. According to a 2022 report in the Economist, “as the school year came to an end, and some 317,000 students made their way to exam centers, the blackouts resumed. A research team at the Georgia Institute of Technology recorded outages lasting several hours on May 30th, June 2nd, and June 6th—all coinciding with national secondary school tests.”

But — and this should go without saying — the downside of the outages is enormous. Per the above-linked 2022 Economist article, “traders are blocked from the market, businesses cannot process electronic payments and hospitals are unable to search for patient records.” In total, a few hours of downtime costs the local economy millions of dollars, not to mention “the damage done to investors’ confidence in the countries’ economies.” And, increasingly, there’s skepticism as to whether the outages prevent cheating — students will find a way. For example, in 2016, “[the Algeria] government ended up blocking access to Facebook and Twitter, but ultimately 300,000 students had to retake their exams” after questions of impropriety still emerged.

Nevertheless, the practice continues. An organization called AccessNow, which uses the hashtag #KeepItOn to urge governments to, well, keep the Internet on, tracks such outages, and has seen little improvement in the impacted regions to date.

Bonus fact: Syria’s decision to temporarily shut down Internet access is silly, but it’s not the silliest thing the nation has banned. In 1933, according to an Australian newspaper report at the time, the nation banned yo-yos. Why? Locals thought the toy was causing a drought. Per the article, “they say that while the people are praying for rain to come down from above the yo-yo goes down, and before reaching the ground springs up through the subtle pull of the string.” 

From the Archives: The Most Unlikely Hacker: The day Armenia’s internet was taken out by a hacker in Georgia — kind of.