Teaching Students to Commit Fraud

Regular readers of this blog will know that not long ago I taught a class called Lying About the Past in which my students created a fictitious historical figure — Edward Owens, the “last American pirate.” That class generated a fair amount of comment in the blogosphere and has resulted in some very interesting conversations with colleagues.

It seems that I’m not the only one to incorporate intentional fraud into a course. Paul Mason, an accounting professor at the University of Kansas has been teaching a course in forensic accounting this semester in which his students learn just how easily it is to commit financial fraud and identity theft. What his students found is exactly the same thing that mine did — fraud and deception, whether about the past or about someone’s checking account, are very easy things to pull off, especially in the digital age.

What I like about the course described in this news story is that the students were forced to grapple with real life substantive issues, rather than reading or hearing about them in the abstract. As one of Mason’s students says in the story, “The best way to learn something is to actually see how it works.” For the students in my class I think the biggest takeaways were the same as for Mason’s students — that they need to be very vigilant when it comes to the “facts” they find in their chose field and that there are important ethical issues in any discipline that require intense scrutiny. Sometimes, maybe always, that scrutiny is best done by getting one’s hands dirty, by which I mean actually entering into the ethical conundrum rather than just reading about it.

It seems to me that the more opportunities we can create for our students to really dig into their subject matter–really grappling with the central issues–the better off they will be. Hoaxes and secret surveillance are not required. Hands on history is.

One thought on “Teaching Students to Commit Fraud

  1. Derek Bruff

    Thanks for sharing this, Mills. It makes me wonder if my freshman seminar on the history and mathematics of cryptography should include an element along these lines. Might the students get a better sense of the role cryptography plays in security and privacy if they engage in some kind of game that requires them to use cryptography (encryption and cryptanalysis) successfully to win? Hmm…

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