Loys Bonod, the teacher that vandalized Wikipedia

Caricature of a teacher punishing kids

“The naughty children”, 1849. Source: Wikipedia

Friday morning, at the Introduction to Information Studies class, we were presented some of the main critiques of the information society and a few arguments used by technology skeptics. One of the cases presented by our professor, was about Loys Bonod, a French teacher that went to great lengths to prove his students are cheating. In the end he wrote a blog post on his website, Comment j’ai pourri le web  (How I rotted the web), where he describes in details his tactic. Here is a brief timeline of the events:

The cheat

Every year, he would ask his students to write an essay about certain subject related to French literature. They would have about a month to do their research and come up with a text. At one point he noticed a recurring pattern of a strange syntactic construction in several of the essays and after a quick search on Google, he realized that his students bought online for less than 2 € an essay on the subject. Later that year, another student chose the shortcut of a ready-made essay and he was caught cheating.

Setting up the trap

At the end of the Summer of that year he found a XVIIth century poem that had no traces on the Internet. The author is Charles de Vion d’Alibray, a very little known character of the French literature.

First he registered an account on Wikipedia and claims to have made some editing to prove himself as a legitimate and credible contributor.

He also registered on several forums used by students, as a fake student and asked questions about this author, than he created another account to answer his own questions with an in apparent scholarly fashion, but his answers were totally wrong.

Finally, he wrote an essay that he submitted to a couple of websites selling essays. These websites had accepted his text without verifying the correctness of the content.

He made sure to post links all over the place on the Internet, so that his online trap gets good page rank on Google.

Once everything was in place, he gave his students two weeks, to write an essay about this poem. He asked them to be original, as he was curios about their personal opinion.

The catch

Out of 65 students, 51 have fallen into his trap by copying to diverse degree from the Internet, the information they have found, without making any background check to see if what they are copying is correct or not. They had used Wikipedia blindly without verifying the authenticity of the sources. The worst errors were those of the interpretation, were complete phrases were recopied, denoting a complete lack of understanding of the poem and of the methodology of writing essays.

He did not gave grades on this assignment, but he managed to have the students blush when they realized they were caught cheating.

Loys Bonod’s conclusion

I will try to translate his conclusion to best of my knowledge:

It is recommended that teachers introduce students to the NTIC (New Technologies of Information and Communication).

I think I’ve done my job and it is self concluding: students in high school do not have the maturity to take any advantage of the digital when it comes to humanities. Their servitude to the Internet goes against the autonomy of thought and personal culture that the school is supposed to give them. Wanting to enter the digital into the school, we forget that he has already entered a long time ago, and in its wild form, he digs the grave of the republican education.

With this educational experience I wanted to show students that teachers can sometimes master new technologies as well as them or better than them.

I then wanted to demonstrate that any content posted on the web is not necessarily validated content, or it can be validated for reasons which fall within the intellectual imposture.

And finally, I wanted to prove that more than laziness, it is a serious lack of confidence that pushes them to copy what they find elsewhere, and that endorsing the thoughts of others, they deny themselves and disappear.

Did I succeeded? It would be to my students to say. One thing is certain: this experience, I think, marked my students and I have a fine reputation in my school.

For my part, I do not believe at all in a possible moralization of digital in schools.

And I defend this paradox: there is no real benefit to the digital unless the mind was built ​​without him.

Update: for an alternative translation, consider proximity1’s comment, as I might have missed some of the nuances of Loys Bonod’s article.

Wikipedia’s reaction

Mr. Bonod’s reputation reached beyond the walls of its school and he’s now given as an example of possible vandalism of Wikipedia, next to men with big penises and friends of gays.

My colleagues’ reaction

While information science at its origins was dealing with archives and libraries, in the pas few decades because of the digital revolution, things are changing fast and information professionals have to adapt fast to new realities.

As a mandatory, introductory course, we’re quite many in the amphitheater and often the reaction of some of my colleagues denote mistrust of new technologies and in few cases, I even felt hatred of anything that would involve a computer, or the Internet.

The story of Mr. Bonod is a juicy bone, for such people that fear technology. What better proof you need to demonstrate that Wikipedia is not a reliable source of scholarly information, than the editing of the Charles de Vion d’Alibray article?

My conclusion: the palaeontologist is not a veterinarian

I have all the respect for Mr. Bonod’s experiment, he put in a lot of time and effort to show kids that stuff on the Internet have to be taken with a grain of salt. What really bothers me is his conclusion that the mind should be formed in a bubble, isolated from the digital world and only exposed to the Internet when a teacher or someone else considers it to be ready.

This is a complete non-sense.

How does Mr. Bonod think it’s even possible to escape the Internet? It’s everywhere, it’s not just the laptops and cellphones that are connected, but those teenager’s TV’s and game consoles too; every day there are more and more devices that get hooked up and educators should stop ignoring it.

How can he foresee the job market his students will have to fit in? I can guarantee, it’ll be totally different from what he has witnessed before and instead of discouraging his students to use the Internet, he should teach team and encourage them to use it correctly and in a constructive way. Vandalizing Wikipedia was maybe to extreme as a pedagogical method.

People like Bonod, I see them as palaeontologists, enamored and passionate about a world long gone. There is nothing wrong to be a palaeontologist, but when your fluffy kitten needs a vaccine or your dog has an indigestion, would you take him to a palaeontology museum or to a veterinarian? I bet you would opt to take your pet to the vet clinic, but what if the doctor is not a veterinarian, but a guy specialized in dinosaurs. He will probably have some basic knowledge about cats and dogs, but he’s mind is filled with ancient bones of Triceratops Horridus and he’s handling your darling like it would been an petrified fossil.

While our cats and dogs are in safe hands with the veterinarians, when it comes to schools, often I wonder about some teachers, the Loys Bonods of the world and their curriculum.

Many journalists hate bloggers and blogs, they feel threatened by how easy it is to write, publish and distribute a story. Photographers hate stock photo website, because they dilute the price of average quality images. Graphic designers a weary of websites like 99designs.ca because people would design a logo for 200$.

The world is changing and educators should not just accept these changes, but embrace them, embed them and use them as tools to open up new perspectives in their work of forming minds and souls.

As the French philosopher Michel Serres pointed out, we shouldn’t be concerned with what we are loosing because of the digital revolution, we should rather focus on what we gain. He actually had a very interesting dialog with Alain Finkielkraut on Radio France Culture about the education in the world that is coming. Here is the link to the podcast, the interview is in French.

When I look around my class and see some of my classmates, future information professionals, people that in a couple of years will decide about library budgets, and archive development, their hatred, fear and complete misunderstanding of the direction our world is going scares me and I wonder, what on Earth are they doing here?

In the second half of our class, we had Martin Lessard, a Montreal based web strategy consultant, invited to talk about the role of social media in a world of information overload. It was quite funny to hear him talk about Loys Bonod’s case, but from a completely different perspective than our professor. I saw many shaking heads in disapproval around me.

In conclusion, those that are passionate about dinos, should not work with kittens.

14 Responses to Loys Bonod, the teacher that vandalized Wikipedia

  1. Loys says:

    I didn’t “prove my students are cheating” at all : I showed them how slaves they were to the web for an exercise that just requires understanding and thinking.

  2. Adam says:

    I’m highly recommending you the podcast I linked to in this post, with Michel Seres, about education for the World that comes.

    We’re not digital natives, but your students are already born into a World that is highly connected and it’s natural for them to rely on the Internet.

    What you should consider teaching them, is how to find correct information online, how to validate the information they gather and also, how to contribute to the Internet in a constructive way.

    It’s not enough to form good citizens for the Republic, you also have to form good netizens.

  3. Loys says:

    Good netizens must be good readers first.

    I heard Michel Serres : teaching in Stanford, he thinks students now know more than teachers. He should meet pupils who cannot read or write…

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  5. proximity1 says:

    RE: “Good netizens must be good readers first.”

    That your observation apparently obvious from the outset speaks volumes about the growing techno-mess in which society now suffers.

    But there’s more to be concerned about than merely the obvious aspect of your observation. I have in mind that, for example, Adam Sofineti probably (I daresay) wouldn’t, couldn’t even agree with you on the matter of what should practically constitute “good readers”.

    What you’ve observed in your students habits inside the classroom as well as their work done outside it is just one part of a much larger, general (relative) decline in reading comprehension, in logical reasoning and in expository writing at all levels–from that of what is now an “average person” right on to that of those who pass today for the “above average” or the “elite”. All, from one end to the other are implcated at their various stations in what is a general fall-off in literary interests and abilities.

    Just read Adam’s English composition in this, his commentary. It’s deplorable. But it’s also typically of what the well-above-average educated person presents in writing and in logical reasoning today–whether that person graduated from one of the mass-production state universities or from one of the elite Ivy League colleges or universities–the bastions of privilege and exclusivity; in one case as in the other, graduates have read far fewer books–some get through college without reading any entire text–novel, epic poem, play, or non-fiction history or biography– that was not required of them by their course’s assignments. It seems that, if some of these students aren’t boastful of that, neither are some ashamed of it. Everywhere they look, they see their low efforts, low standards of practice exhibited and approved by their peers.

    This, too, is what contemporary techno-optisims and techno-worship is giving us: a loss of a worthy idea of what “good readers” even means or should mean.

    • Adam says:

      @proximity1 “Just read Adam’s English composition in this, his commentary. It’s deplorable.”

      For me this blog, among other things, is also a learning experience. I’m happy to have feedbacks from my readers, not just on the content but also on the quality of my language.

      English is not my mother tongue, neither is French and any corrections you might want to bring to this text, I will consider them seriously.

      • proximity1 says:

        Then I must and I do apologize to you.

        There is nothing I could see in your English composition which to me clearly set you out as a non-native English speaker. Even your name could easily be that of a native English speaker.

        In effect, then, a typical contemporary American’s (that is, of the U.S.) English usage is such that he or she is hardly or not at all distinguishable from your command of the language—which means something quite complimentary for your skills in English while it means something quite less complimentary about those who were born and raised speaking English.

        I retract my comment, then, which was based on my misunderstanding of your linguistic origins.

        • Adam says:

          There is no offence taken. I know that my English and especially my French have plenty of room for improvement.

  6. proximity1 says:

    some revisions:

    should have read:

    “That your observation _isn’t_ apparently obvious from the outset …”

    … “What you’ve observed in your students’ habits” …

    …”But it’s also typical of what the well-above-average educated person presents in writing and in logical reasoning today” …

    ” techno-optisms”

  7. proximity1 says:

    “optimisms”

    Please–add a text-revision component to your site’s text-editor software.

  8. proximity1 says:

    I don’t think your translation of Loys’ conclusions does them justice or conveys any of the subtlety in his analysis. Moreover, You misunderstand him, for example, where you object, asking,

    “How does Mr. Bonod think it’s even possible to escape the Internet? It’s everywhere, it’s not just the laptops and cellphones that are connected, but those teenager’s TV’s and game consoles too; every day there are more and more devices that get hooked up and educators should stop ignoring it.”

    In his text, you mistranslate his meaning as

    “For my part, I do not believe at all in a possible moralization of digital in schools.”

    where he’d written,

    “Pour ma part je ne crois pas du tout à une moralisation possible du numérique à l’école.”

    That means, in fact, that he doesn’t believe that schools can (on their own, at any rate) (“moraliser”) “redeem” or “rehabilitate,” or “remake” (as in overcome or reverse) the practical effects of the “internet”–or, more generally, the world of networked (so-called) “interactive” mass-media, internet included– but as I see his intent, he’s intending the entire digital infrastructure, in french, “numéric” means in this context.


    ” Je crois que j’ai fait mon travail et que la conclusion s’impose d’elle-même : les élèves au lycée n’ont pas la maturité nécessaire pour tirer un quelconque profit du numérique en lettres. ”

    >> I believe I’ve done my job and that the conclusion is self-evident: high school students don’t have the maturity needed to profit from internet sources when it comes to literature. <<

    At bottom, as a teacher, Loys has observed first-hand some of the negative effects that his students suffer from their, indeed, ubiquitous exposure to all things digital and networked; he has noticed how some of the effects have underminded his students' capacities to tend to think and to work wihtout undue props in their aid, props adopted uncritically and without the perspective an older, more mature person has, or, well, once could have been supposed to have.

    He is very deliberately stepping in to defend his students' interests in their becoming self-sufficient intellectual adults. In that, he's understood that he cannot simply stand by quietly while his students are influenced so much for the worse by their exposures to the world of the internet.

    You ought to recognize and applaud his intentions and his motives, for they are quite admirable.

    He concludes by this:

    "Et je défends ce paradoxe : on ne profite vraiment du numérique que quand on a formé son esprit sans lui."

    Your rendering of that is roughly accurate. But you seem not to have grasped its import.

    "We only really profit from the digital when we've taught students (to think, to reason) without it (i.e. without its dependant use).”

    If there is to be real benefit taken from the potential (for good, that is,) which the internet holds, that has to come through and by intellects which have been formed without a priority reliance on it as a pedagogic tool.

    “built” is a very unfortunate and mistaken term for what Loys has written. Students develop intellectually–they develop themselves, they don’t “build” themselves.

    • Adam says:

      Thank you for this contribution. I included a link in the post to your comment, I’m sure it’ll help my readers have a better understanding of Mr. Bonod’s intentions.

      “You ought to recognize and applaud his intentions and his motives, for they are quite admirable.”

      I do applaud his intentions and his motives, but I do condemn his method. We find pretty much the same intentions and motives in the case of the history teacher from Abitibi (http://www.adamsofineti.com/2012/12/wikipedia-used-to-motivate-students/), but I find his method was better adapted. His students walked away from his class not just by being more aware of the pitfalls of the Internet, but they also learned how to contribute to the Internet in a positive manner.

  9. proximity1 says:

    Imagine you are a high school student. Which approach would more impress you and, most important, remain a life-long lesson?:

    a) hearing a reiteration from the adult teacher of an advisory warning about how the internet is full of information of dubious quality and accuracy.

    or,

    b) falling afoul of these same pitfalls in accuracy, in your own personal experience, while a too-trusting student in high school, by turning in automatically, and, what’s most important about this episode, needlessly, to the internet–specifically to sites designed for and aimed at such students’ use as quick-and-easy substitutions for their own personal intellectual efforts–to find what you naively believe is a ready-to-copy-and-paste answer to your homework assignment?

    In my view, there is “no contest”.

    But, let me go back to what Bonod has tried again and again to state and to emphasize:

    the assignment, as he directly explained to his classes, called for no research at all on their parts. It was, rather, an assignment in which they were asked, called on, to read and interpret in their own way and their own words, the verses of a poem. As it was presented to them, there should have been no use for or advantage in resorting to any outside source of whatever kind. After all, the point of the assignmnnt (in a literature class) was to read, reflect, and then write one’s own thoughts and opinions–not cull something from others’ opinions or sources.

    In effect, by turning automatically to Wikipedia, the students blunted the purpose of their assignment and cheated themselves, not their teacher, of the value of the work they were supposed to have done. Instead of doing it–as their papers clearly exhibit–they skipped that effort and relied instead on “cooked up” stuff.

    And, it should impress you that they offered this cooked up stuff as their own reflections on the poem, as their interpretive work on the verses’s import.

    This really amounts to the same thing as most or all of a high school classroom’s students resorting to copying large parts of someone else’s “paper”, never mind the changes in detaiml being that in modern life, that copied paper is now sold openly on the web, rather than trafficked in by sly classmates in the school the students attend.

    At Loys Bonod’s own blog—he’s a blogger, after all! ;^) —there’s a point-by-point reply to your thread’s criticisms of his “method”.

    Really, let’s consider this from a moral standpoint if that what you’d like:

    You’re (let us suppose) in his place. You have real and serious responsibilities to your students. Are you going to pass on what taking advantage of what you have very good reason to suppose would be a lasting and effective means to teach them something very importnat about themselves, about their responsibilities to themselves as students, readers, thinkers, and, in the members of society?–pass up such an effective lesson and leave your class with the false and injurious belief that their abuse of Wikipedia in place of their own thought-work is acceptable, and all because you might, in using that approach, annoy bloggers on the internet and the authorities at Wikipedia?

    There’s a moral issue. For you, it’s a hypothetical exercise.

    For Loys Bonod, those students are real and so are the consequences of his leaving them with the impression that such a course of behavior is just all in a day’s work for the modern high school student.

    I know where my priorities would be.

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