Monday, February 13, 2012

at what price victory?

The South Korean news (Chosun Ilbo) recently reported on a cheating scandal perpetrated by a Korean company called (appropriately enough) Hackers. The company teaches English conversation and test prep courses.

Staff of Hackers Group, one of the best-known English test preparation services in Korea, have been indicted on charges of illegally recording questions from official English language proficiency tests. Prosecutors said Hackers Group mobilized around 50 staff to record test questions over a four-year period.

"Through organized efforts to leak test questions, Hackers Group was able to achieve W100 billion (US$1=W1,122) in annual sales and W36 billion in net profit just eight years after its establishment," a prosecution spokesman said. Lax attitudes to copyrights that pervade Korean society and the belief that any means are justified to achieve high standardized test scores are the reasons such abuses continue, he added.

The Seoul Central Prosecutors Office on Monday said the 50-year-old chairman of Hackers Group identified only by his surname Cho instructed staff to sit 49 Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) and 57 Test of English Proficiency (TEPS) tests in order to steal the copyright-protected questions between 2007 and early this year.

Prosecutors said staff memorized the test questions or used special devices to record the questions and then posted them on the company's website almost in real time and deleted them the following morning in order to avoid detection. The company then had its native English teachers review and touch them up for use as materials.

The article goes on to note that Hackers "vehemently denies the charges," but my own experience while living in South Korea tells me that the charges are probably true. TOEFL is, for example, key for those wishing to study in the US; Korean students comprise the bulk of TOEFL test-takers, and most US universities require a TOEFL score as part of the applicant's dossier. As a result, teaching mastery of TOEFL is big business in South Korea, and with so much money at stake, unsavory elements in the business world smell profits. This critique is not meant to discredit the sincere efforts of Korean students who only want to follow their dreams: I'm merely pointing out that certain cynical businessmen are willing to forgo ethics in their rush to capitalize on a trend.

So much of the Korean test-prep business is a racket based on poorly conceived pedagogy. Ideally, Korean students need to learn how to think through a test, not how to memorize "the 100 most likely TOEFL writing topics" or any of that nonsense. Many Koreans study English for years without achieving more than mediocre competence. This has less to do with student aptitude than with poor teaching methodology, I think. Of course, with something as nebulous as language teaching, there's no single method that works for everyone, which is why there will always be a plethora of "new" teaching methods-- most of which are ineffective-- promoted by people with no real notion of language curriculum design.

The problem with stealing actual test questions is that the stolen questions, when taught, prepare students only for those particular testing situations and do nothing to improve general fluency. Such teaching also hurts the students in the long run: they use the purloined questions to achieve artificially high scores, then come to the US (essentially on false pretenses) with an over-inflated sense of their own linguistic competence. Once it becomes obvious that they cannot keep up with other classmates in courses involving, say, rapidfire lecture or discussion-- not to mention lengthy research papers-- they realize they've been hoodwinked. Or hacked, in this instance.*

Personal note: I once applied to work for Hackers, way back in 2002 or 2003. I ended up teaching at Sookmyung Women's University instead, and I've never regretted that decision.

*Of course, some students realize what's going on and simply don't care: all they want is the Ivy League name on their résumé so, as the article notes, they're in it only for the high score. When prestige matters more than integrity, something is dreadfully wrong.



Stafford said...

Did I read somewhere that in the end Hackers was charged with Copyright infringement for illegally copying the test questions and then passing them on (to students) for a profit.

Kevin Kim said...

It sounds as if you know more about the situation than I do.