Rob Burggraaf
Student hacking: Awesome or awful? Awesome

While hackers appear frequently in the news and other media as criminals who steal vast amounts of data ranging from email passwords to Social Security numbers, the truth is that a similar number of relatively anonymous hackers work just as furiously to thwart those engaged in illegal activity. Large corporations and even the U.S. government employ computer-savvy individuals to expose vulnerabilities in their systems in an effort to protect the public. 

 

As something that sparks students' imagination and engagement, hacking also has untapped educational value. The Common Core State Standards have called for increased rigor and levels of critical thinking in the classroom, and students need to develop digital skills to function in the world. What better way to achieve these goals than to turn hacking into a problem-solving endeavor?

 

In my years of teaching, one thing I've noticed is that students are inherently curious. Introduce the basics of a new app like Pic Collage, and before long they'll have figured out, without any help, how to change the background, add stickers, etc. If there's a button, students will push it. If there's a menu, they will explore the options. This is exactly the type of lifelong learning skill we want them to develop and apply with purpose.

 

Besides, regardless of how many layers of security we install, the complexity of the passwords we require for profile removal or the control we think we have over devices, our students will find the loopholes. Adults are afraid to touch buttons that will have unknown consequences. Students are not. Adults take great pains to bar all the doors. Students will point out the window that we neglected.

 

The key to what happens next lies in our response as educators. Do we treat hacking as a heinous evil and punish students for their curiosity and problem-solving prowess? My experience has been that this approach will only engender resentment and a greater desire to elude the system. Chances are that any exposed flaw in your security will soon pass semi-secretly around the student body in a display of rebellion. 

 

Instead, what if we offer incentives for students to harness those critical-thinking and creativity skills to find and report flaws that have gone overlooked so they can be remedied before they cause a greater problem in the student body at large? The school district's devices are kept safer, students are rewarded for their persistence and hard work, and hacking has found its place in an engaging, digital age education.

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