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As many people have noticed, one of the main functions of math.se is to be a place for students to get other people to do their homework for them. Obviously we do not want to facilitate such cheating. My personal practice has always been to suggest math.se to users that ask questions that sound like actual questions (but are at too low a level). For questions that are clearly homework, I just vote to close with a comment like "MO is not for homework and is intended for questions at the graduate-school level and above".

Recently I have noticed a lot of people suggesting math.se to people asking homework questions. I really don't like this. Telling someone how to cheat seems to me to be just as unethical as actually helping them cheat. What do other people think about this?

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    $\begingroup$ I explicitly encourage my undergraduate students to ask questions about their homework on math.SE, and many of them have learned a lot this way. There is no sense in which they are cheating. $\endgroup$ – Joel David Hamkins Dec 8 '13 at 17:11
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    $\begingroup$ @JoelDavidHamkins : You are free to teach your students in any way you like. However, I think that the majority of people would object if they learned that their students were getting their problems solved on the internet. Moreover, since you explicitly suggest math.se to them, they are not the ones posting here. $\endgroup$ – Andy Putman Dec 8 '13 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ I think that there are many people who share my view. It is quite common for homework to be assigned but not collected or graded, with the point being to provide problems that the students can use to develop their knowledge. They are tested on their knowledge via quizzes and exams. $\endgroup$ – Joel David Hamkins Dec 8 '13 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ I view a student asking about a homework problem on math.SE as basically similar to them asking at a tutoring center or asking a graduate student for help or another professor. If a professor does not allow this kind of assistance when a student has questions on homework, then I would find that professor's ideas on pedagogy to be flawed. But in any case, it would be an issue between the student and his or her professor, which needn't concern us. Instead, we should be in the business of answering mathematics questions, and providing the best answers that we can. $\endgroup$ – Joel David Hamkins Dec 8 '13 at 17:52
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    $\begingroup$ And I might add that I doubt that you will be able to deduce just from someone asking a homework question that they are in the situation you have described in your comment, instead of the (completely innocent) situation that I have in mind. $\endgroup$ – Joel David Hamkins Dec 8 '13 at 17:56
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    $\begingroup$ In my experience, students learn more if homework is for training and not for examination, since the learning atmosphere is much better then, and the students are much more motivated. And if you do grade written homework, you can anyway often not decide what is cheating, semi-cheating, perhaps-cheating, rather honest but who knows, etc. -- also without Q/A sites. All in all, I see nothing wrong in referring students to Math.SE if they need help. $\endgroup$ – Stefan Kohl Dec 8 '13 at 18:42
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    $\begingroup$ It is perhaps worth noting that Andy and Joel work in very different teaching environments, and what is appropriate in one may or may not be appropriate in the other. (Not only the students, but especially different financial constraints on TAs and graders.) $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Dec 8 '13 at 19:08
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    $\begingroup$ Personally, I think it's abundantly clear that both: 1) At least 10% of the traffic on m.SE is people who have no interest in learning simply outsourcing their homework. 2) At least 10% of the traffic is questions related to homework but which is genuinely helpful to learning. (I'm not confident about whether those numbers are 10% or 20% or 30%, nor that I could with complete accuracy tell one from the other.) So in a real sense Andy and Joel are both right here about how m.SE is being used. $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Dec 8 '13 at 19:11
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    $\begingroup$ I can see the idea in mentioning whether it is allowed to use the internet (or maybe even the more specific instance of asking people via the internet). But explicitly mentioning math.stackexchange.com as allowed or not seems like mentioning whether separate sections of the library are allowed to be used individually. $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kildetoft Dec 8 '13 at 20:57
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    $\begingroup$ @AndyPutnam, while I absolutely agree that many students are using these sites to cheat, many are also using it legitimately. For example, I told my (functional analysis) students that they could ask questions about the course on m.SE, and that it was essential in written assignments that they cited all their sources. I think they posted some good questions on m.SE last semester, duly cited! They weren't even just quotes of my stated questions, but sensible questions about a step they had trouble with. $\endgroup$ – Scott Morrison Dec 8 '13 at 21:08
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    $\begingroup$ In addition to the issue that asking HW might not be cheating, even assuming for the sake of argument it would be, there is still the problem that something can look like a HW question while it actually is not, eg, somebody could be self-studying and post an excercise straight from a textbook. Do you propose to ban this too? Or, how do you propose to tell the two apart? $\endgroup$ – user9072 Dec 8 '13 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ This is a fascinating pedagogical discussion! This is irrelevant to the discussion, but... I noticed an interesting question on MSE, my type of geometric question. Then I realized that it was an exact quote from my own textbook, which is why I thought it was my type of question! Further investigation showed that this user was quoting verbatim my exercises in that book. I actually did not mind the quotation, but I did mind that the quotation was not acknowledged as a quotation from a textbook. $\endgroup$ – Joseph O'Rourke Dec 8 '13 at 22:45
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    $\begingroup$ It's been pointed out, correctly, that sites like math.se can be legitimate and useful tools in the learning process, and that diligent students who are struggling with homework problems might benefit from those tools. But many of the homework problems that pop up here (and there) are straightforward applications of simple definitions, and are clearly intended simply to ensure that the student has taken the trouble to read and digest those definitions. Students who turn to the Internet without bothering to take that trouble should, I think, receive absolutely no encouragement of any kind. $\endgroup$ – Steven Landsburg Dec 9 '13 at 3:17
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    $\begingroup$ @JoelDavidHamkins Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. Judging which it is can unfortunately be hard (even when speaking to the student in person). Sometimes, the Socratic dialogue will end up with the student being given a full solution, and sometimes, it will end before that. Starting with the full solution will mean that this intermediate process can never happen, and if the question contains nothing more than the statement as the student has been given it, there is no way to tell which is the better way for that student without first attempting the dialogue. $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kildetoft Dec 9 '13 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ @StevenLandsburg maybe slightly, but mainly my point still stands. (In addition I am not sure you make such comments only in these cases; I got away with the impression you make them generally on HW type questions.) They seem to have enough interest and ambition to ask on the internet, which arguably could be more effort. So perhaps it is not lack of ambition or interest, but simply that they are completely lost. As said already some time ago I consider comments bashing possible HW-q askers as pointless at best. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Dec 9 '13 at 18:40
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I would just like to point out that there are two types of homework questions: graded homework and ungraded homework. In North America, especially at universities with the kind of budget that permits graders and TAs, there is usually a component of the final grade consisting of graded assignments.

But, for example, in parts of Europe and South America, one's grade in a course is based entirely on exams (sometimes on a single final exam) and there is no notion of graded homework. There are sometimes suggested problems, perhaps gone over in a tutorial section, but perhaps not. Solutions are rarely posted. And in some institutions in North America which do not have graders or TAs, problem sets are often only partially graded and solutions are not necessarily posted.

Clearly seeking help on ungraded assignments cannot be construed as cheating. It is conceivable that someone is working on an ungraded problem and is stuck or wants to check their work. Of course they should go see their professor, but if they are living far from campus (say at home) they might find it easier to ask online. Also, professors have limited office hours and there may be no TAs to talk to. Not all universities have the same resources for students.

So it is not automatically the case that an obvious homework question is a graded homework question and so it is not clear that all such questions constitute cheating. (Of course, sometimes the person asking the question says they need an answer in one day, and then it is more or less clear that they are trying to cheat.) This then becomes, to some extent, a question of presuming innocence vs presuming guilt. I personally don't answer questions that I think are homework because I have done enough homework in my lifetime and also I would prefer students to seek help from the person paid to help them. Also I would prefer not to unwittingly aid cheaters.

But the real problem is that we have no way to know because cheaters don't advertise that this is graded homework or that they are not authorized by the prof to use internet resources. If we could know, it might be nice to help students in less fortunate conditions with work that is ungraded. So this is a tough question and I have no real answer.

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    $\begingroup$ To add to this: in the UK (at least), it often happens that homework is handed in and graded, but without the grade counting for anything. The main purpose of such a grade is to help the student to know how well they're doing. In the jargon, this is formative rather than summative assessment. $\endgroup$ – Tom Leinster Dec 11 '13 at 21:16
  • $\begingroup$ @TomLeinster, I wouldn't call seeking help on MSE cheating unless the grade actually counts toward the student's final mark in the course. But I would be more willing to answer a question if I was sure the questioner didn't have access to grading or solutions. $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Steinberg Dec 11 '13 at 21:26
  • $\begingroup$ I wasn't disagreeing, Ben - just adding information. $\endgroup$ – Tom Leinster Dec 12 '13 at 1:49
  • $\begingroup$ I understand, Tom. I was just trying to say that in the above one should interpret ungraded as not counting toward the final grade. $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Steinberg Dec 12 '13 at 2:19
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Since not too long ago "Lack of context" is a close-reason on math.SE, yet since long ago there were guidelines how to approach and how to ask questions that are likely or explicitly homework questions. See for example this thread for a start https://math.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/11075/guideline-for-using-lack-of-context-and-homework-close-reasons

On the one hand, I mention this to counter the idea that might exist in some people's mind that math.SE is so tolerant against cheating. This is not really relevant to the debate but still I consider the description of math.SE in the question as somewhat imbalanced and thus wanted to counterbalance it a bit.

On the other hand, and more directly relevant, this means that sending questions that are only a problem and nothing else (e.g., directly copied from a HW assignment or textbook) directly to math.SE is indeed not a good idea (anymore), though for reasons somewhat other than the one in OP.

Instead one could mention math.SE with some additional explanation and guidance. This course of action is also advertized since a long time by some users active on both sites.

I cannot see anyting unethical about doing this. (Aside: even if abstractly it were, the actual effect in my opinion would anyway be rather minimal, as they likely will find the math.SE site or still another one without instructions; to give them is simply useful to get rid of the poster in a somehow friendlier or non-confrontational way.)

While I am certain some people try to use MO and math.SE to cheat and this is in some sense problematic, not each use that could be cheating in this form actually is and I consider it as not a good idea to assume automatically the worst in each case (even if this should be the typical case, which might or might no be the case).

More generally, the idea that "we" are responsible to prevent cheating on HW, in my opinion, is fundamentally flawed; not only but also since we cannot effectively prevent it, and in trying too hard more harm than good is done.

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    $\begingroup$ I think that there is a substantial difference between the idea that one is "responsible to prevent cheating on HW" on the one hand, the idea that "it is my obligation to do nothing if I see what may be cheating on [someone else's] homework" on the other, and (to play the octopus), the idea that "if I see something that is very likely to be cheating, to say something." When I was still in SE, there were people who were very vocal that it was the obligation of SE users to do nothing but answer questions. And there were people who were very vocal that it was (cont) $\endgroup$ – Arturo Magidin Dec 8 '13 at 23:19
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    $\begingroup$ (cont) the obligation to stop any and all cheating (i.e., first and second hands above). However, I really see nothing wrong with the middle road. But whenever I attempted to take it, I would get jumped on by the "you must do nothing but answer questions, and anything else is deeply offensive and likely to scare off potential contributors" crowd (and yes, there was more than one person expousing it). $\endgroup$ – Arturo Magidin Dec 8 '13 at 23:22
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    $\begingroup$ @ArturoMagidin This is unfortunately still the case, and the "do nothing" has been expanded by "you should not close questions, as that limits potential contributors' possibilities for answering, which is a bad thing" which seems to be the opinion of a few people who state it whenever these issues come up. $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kildetoft Dec 9 '13 at 8:49
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    $\begingroup$ @TobiasKildetoft: That's too bad. I can see the case for not automatically assuming that there is something inappropriate going on, but I think that it is just as morally troublesome to purposefully close your eyes to potential wrong doing simply because "if it is a problem, it's not my problem". Worse when the justification seems to be "and if it is a problem, it is the fault of the person who set it up in the first place" (that is, those who say that if asking on .SE is 'cheating', then it's because the teacher is an incompetent stuck in the past. Sigh. $\endgroup$ – Arturo Magidin Dec 9 '13 at 17:22
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    $\begingroup$ @ArturoMagidin abstractly I do not disagree. However to declare already pointing somebody asking a certain type of question that might be HW and that thus might be cheating to a site where they might get a solution as an unethical act is in my opinion trying too hard to prevent cheating. And I said trying too hard creates problems. As said many times and now in a comment, I am very strongly in favor of having a general culture of context and motivation, which would allow to prevent a lot of problems without the need to make some assumptions and "ethical" judgements based on hardly any info. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Dec 9 '13 at 17:40
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    $\begingroup$ In addition, all this ethical and moral talk is a bit tricky. What if somebody considers certain ways of grading as a problem? Perhaps it is then their moral duty to undermine them as much as possible? What I mean to say is, I consider it as a lot more productive if these discussion focus on practical and actionable solutions that increase the quality of the site(s) rather than some genral talk about moral and ethics and what not. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Dec 9 '13 at 17:47
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    $\begingroup$ @quid I think the moral issue with grading is quite relevant. While I see value in requiring students to reference sources used, I think "moral codes" that prohibit students to read books or look at the internet repugnant. That's like a teacher in a political science class forbidding students to read the newspaper. $\endgroup$ – Michael Greinecker Dec 9 '13 at 17:56
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    $\begingroup$ @quid: Yes, I agree that trying too hard can be a problem; but I find automatically dismissing any qualms as a pedagogical (or moral) failing to be just as big a problem. Frankly, when I was told that asking someone who had been posting many (half a dozen, a dozen) questions that were all in the form of homework questions, etc., whether this was from an assignment, that I was being offensive, morally deficient, and quite possibly an incompetent teacher to boot... well, why would that be okay? I feel (mild) moral outrage when someone else exceeds the speed limit; I feel the same way with this $\endgroup$ – Arturo Magidin Dec 9 '13 at 19:20
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    $\begingroup$ @quid: I don't think that we have an obligation to close our eyes, just as we don't have an obligation to be automatically suspicious. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I found the "how dare you ask if it is homework" crowd to be more toxic for me than the "Is this homework?"-at-everything crowed; but of course I was on the receiving end of the former but not the latter. I think both are a problem, with the former being detrimental to some participants and the latter to others. $\endgroup$ – Arturo Magidin Dec 9 '13 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Quid: I should probably add: although JDH is a strong proponent of the "don't ask whether it is homework" and even of the "if asking here is cheating then there's something wrong with the way the class is being taught" camp, in my experience he never jumped on people for asking "Is this homework?" or variants. Rather, he tends to express his (strong) opinion in meta-threads that surface about the matter. It was really certain other people that contributed to drive me away from SE in part because of that attitude. $\endgroup$ – Arturo Magidin Dec 9 '13 at 19:29
  • $\begingroup$ @ArturoMagidin I know math.SE a bit but not very much. Yes, I did see some discussions too that I felt exaggerated in the other direction, too. And, as said I certainly have no problem if people ask in a friendly or at least neutral way about the context of a problem (and close it if it is not provided or is not appropriate), as opposed to simply assuming some context (especially if it is an inappropriate one) or also just always answering whatever is asked. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Dec 9 '13 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Arturo: I know this is not the place to say it, but still, MSE (both in content, and in community spirit) misses your extremely valuable contributions. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Dec 9 '13 at 21:24
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The growth of online tools, such as Math.SE, means that one can no longer base a grade on any work done at home. Quizzes and in-class tests is the way to go. Now I explicitly allow use of any sources, as long as by the quiz/test time students know the material.

In upper level undergraduate (or lower level graduate) courses my grading method of choice used to be take-home exams and homework. I was under illusion that students in my classes won't cheat. I still think this is true for most students I am dealing with, but unfortunately not always, as I learned the hard way.

Finally, a word in defence of homework-level questions: I learn a lot from reading them, mainly in subjects other than my own. What is homework to an expert may be a revelation to a casual user of these subjects, like myself.

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Is there really only one person willing to try and find an answer to this question?

Recently in the MSE chatroom the following 5 starred comment was made:

i was wearing my MSE shirt today around the department and was asked by several people about it, "isn't that the site undergraduates go to to cheat at homework?"

Followed by the unfortunate consequence: "it's really kind of heartbreaking that that's what we're becoming known for."

In my opinion, more effort should be directed towards answering this query and not just commenting.

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    $\begingroup$ Ironically, this is more of a comment than an answer :) $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Steinberg Dec 11 '13 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ This question though seems better for the old meta as it is very discussion-oriented, which leads to lots of comments to try to thread things. $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Steinberg Dec 11 '13 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ My answer is to try harder to find an answer, before it is too late. $\endgroup$ – skullpatrol Dec 11 '13 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ What do you mean by too late? Is there any deadline to resolve this question after which all hell will break loose? $\endgroup$ – Emil Jeřábek Dec 11 '13 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, as a matter of fact there is an academic deadline; if a randomly chosen university is calling this "...the site undergraduates go to to cheat at homework?" our academic reputation could be beyond the point of repair. $\endgroup$ – skullpatrol Dec 11 '13 at 21:00
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    $\begingroup$ "In my opinion, more effort should be directed towards answering this query and not just commenting." But that's an issue to be dealth with at MSE rather than MO, yes? In your anecdote, it wasn't this site that was referred to as one where undergraduates go to cheat at homework. $\endgroup$ – Ed Dean Dec 11 '13 at 21:27
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There is a lot of dissension among the ranks at Math.SE, but, frankly, I am aghast that my colleagues would send students there rather than take the time to do their job. Some of the students clearly want just hints but often get complete solutions posted for them. And the ones that want complete solutions seem to revel in having them provided, often time and time again. As a faculty member, I do consider this cheating, just as copying solutions out of a manual or other text is cheating. Please cf. my post as a (as yet, failed) attempt at the beginning of a solution.

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    $\begingroup$ I think this comment is too dismissive. For instance, I haven't met Joel David Hamkins or seen him teach, but if you look at the care he puts into his MO contributions and his well thought-out comments under the original question above, I'd be very surprised if he didn't "take the time to do [his] job". Sure, you and Joel seem to have different approaches to teaching, but that doesn't mean either of you is neglectful. $\endgroup$ – Tom Leinster Dec 11 '13 at 21:02
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think that telling students that they should avail themselves of all available resources (including, of course, a professor in the Department who makes him or herself available to his or her students), is "[not] tak[ing] the time to do their job." At least one part of my graduate education included learning to use the resource of the University and Department library, and not just for my research: also to look for ideas for homework assignments. A professor that says "math.SE is one possible resource" is not necessarily shirking on the duties of a teacher. $\endgroup$ – Arturo Magidin Dec 11 '13 at 21:05
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    $\begingroup$ I did not intend any ad hominem attack here. But I am sorely frustrated by what Math.SE has morphed into during my 9 months of activity there. And the deliciously interesting questions seem mostly to be disappearing or just buried where we can no longer find them because of the thousands of low-effort questions. $\endgroup$ – Ted Shifrin Dec 11 '13 at 21:22
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    $\begingroup$ I hope this does not come off as a "stupid question" it is not intended as such: in which way did math.SE change much in the last 9 month (except for getting still a bit higher volume)? I feel to remember (from a distance) all these debates since basically "always" but I did not pay that much attention. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Dec 11 '13 at 23:33
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    $\begingroup$ @quid As Ed Dean says above, this is an MSE problem that should be resolved on MSE, but: as a very new user, even without knowing what the site was like 9 months ago, it's currently drenched in low-effort questions, either from people who aren't willing to put the effort into their self-study or people just looking for answers. It's frustrating and hurts what I think could be an interesting website. $\endgroup$ – Mike Miller Dec 11 '13 at 23:56
  • $\begingroup$ Ted, Dmitry started grad school with me. He puts pretty much all the grade on the homework, and gives them the option of taking a final if it might raise their grade. It works, although it may take someone with Dmitry's personality to pull it off. Anyway, see ratemyprofessors.com/ShowRatings.jsp?tid=333850 $\endgroup$ – Will Jagy Dec 12 '13 at 5:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Mike thank you for the reply. I agree this might not be exactly on-topic here, but also my question is more specific than what you answered and not a general request about math.SE and some (perceived) problem. I asked in what way it changed during the last 9 months, since it was claimed here it changed significantly. My point being that I suspect it it actually didn't change that much but rather that Ted Shifrin's perception of it changed (which is normal and happens to me frequently for MO). Which is however relevant, as it helps to decide on urgency of counter-measures. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Dec 12 '13 at 10:16
  • $\begingroup$ Ted, do you forbid your students to use math.SE? If so, that would seem to be a pity, because students might learn a lot of mathematics there, both by asking and by answering questions. $\endgroup$ – Joel David Hamkins Dec 13 '13 at 18:18
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    $\begingroup$ @JoelDavidHamkins: I've never done so yet :) But I am very, very serious about academic honesty and I also hope students come to me in office hours rather than seeking outside "help." I similarly hope they don't get my colleagues (senior undergraduates or graduate students, included) to do their homework. In most of the courses I teach, homework is a significant portion (30-35%) of the grade, and I often grade it myself. But, in interest of full disclosure, I have always been somewhat teaching-oriented in a research institution environment and am close to retirement, so I do not pay for this. $\endgroup$ – Ted Shifrin Dec 13 '13 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ Since you seem unable or unwilling to answer a simple request for clarification related to a claim you made, I take it you do not intend to maintain the claim. $\endgroup$ – user9072 Dec 14 '13 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ @quid: Honestly, I am not avoiding your challenge. I am in no position to provide data, but my personal impression is that we are now populated by a far larger number of questioners with very few rep points who are just plopping questions down in the room with zero sign of effort. I would hazard a guess that it's 3-4 times as many. Thanks for your adversarial tone. $\endgroup$ – Ted Shifrin Dec 14 '13 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for the reply. Sorry if you did not like the tone, but I do not like being ignored, and so eventually I got your atttention. An increase in volume seems plausible to me, as hinted at, on the one hand as the general volume increased significantly and also since it seems unsurprising that now and recently there is more hW being asked than a couple months before (due to the to be expected fluctuations following the academic year). Still this seems more like a quantitative change than a qualitative one (like hypothetically now there being people fully answering HW and not before). $\endgroup$ – user9072 Dec 14 '13 at 22:47
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If Andy telling people "Go To X", as a response for asking for help, and he does it with a wink, because he believes that asking on X is cheating, and if Andy has moral issues with this, then Andy needs to change his behaviour.

If Andy telling people "Go To X", as a response for asking for help, and he does it because he believes it will help, and he still has issues with it, then Andy needs to change his behaviour, or accept the consequences of his behaviour.

I have no qualms about directing such people to M.SE because I believe they will be treated appropriately there. Either they will be tutored or handheld until they understand, or they will be shunned, or they will be ingenious and get the answer without understanding it nor crediting the source.

With society building large and easily accessed reserves of knowledge, it is required that social attitudes regarding education and cheating be reexamined. I think modelling the desired behaviour is the best solution: give time to help communicate understanding, or point the way when possible toward acquiring such understanding. Whether this means doing the work for them, I leave to others to decide.

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