Online quizzes are gaining popularity in classrooms. Some students are hacking them

Shauna Dauderman’s eighth-grade Academic Block class at Alta Sierra Intermediate School was supposed to start the day off with an online review game. But before it could begin, the virtual lobby was bombarded with unfamiliar names.

“What is this?” Dauderman asked her class.

“Nothing,” a group of students called back. “Don’t worry about it.”

It’s happened once or twice before, according to Dauderman: she starts a quiz on the online platform Kahoot, and it’s flooded with names that do not belong to her students. It’s not a big deal – she uses Kahoot only as a warm-up game, and she can block the strange users from participating and move on.

But what happened is known as Kahoot hacking on online forums dedicated to the practice. As Kahoot has exploded in popularity in classrooms, some students have taken to programming bots to spam their class quizzes, with the aim of halting the quiz, flashing an inappropriate name onscreen or getting the answer key.

Other students use a slightly more low-tech approach by posting their classroom quiz PINs on Reddit forums where other bored students can simply join in. Moderators of the forums insist the practice is a harmless way to show off coding skills and cause a little disruption – the digital equivalent of lobbing a spitball during a lesson.

“We do not support abusive or offensive kahoot names,” one forum’s description reads. “This is a simple place to play a PG prank on unsuspecting classrooms around the world.”

Others suggest that the competitive nature of Kahoot is the reason for the hacking.

“Recently, a lot of my teachers have been integrating Kahoot into our daily classes and rewarding those who get first place,” one online hack website reads. “It was fun at first but it got boring really fast since there was always that one kid who always was in first. As a result of my boredom, I got the bright idea to create a tool that spammed fake users onto my teacher’s quizzes just to spice things up.”

Role of technology?

Brian Davis, who teaches a professional development class called “Kahoot in the Classroom” that’s available at Fresno Pacific University, also says the practice sounds more ornery than destructive. But Kahoot hacking does raise questions about the role of technology in teaching a generation that’s already fluent in it.

“These kids like to try and stay one or two steps ahead of the adults,” Davis said. “They’re growing up with technology in their hands as early as a year old. And the pros of that are that they have the entire world at their fingertips. As for the cons, well, is it a tool or a toy?”

Davis said he encourages his student teachers to choose two or three apps that they feel most comfortable using in the classroom, rather than try to learn and implement everything that’s available to teachers nowadays.

Kahoot is great for spot-check assessments, as well as surveys and ice-breakers, according to Davis. One of its advantages over traditional paper-and-pen review quizzes is that it can show teachers in real-time which concepts the whole class might be struggling with.

“Research is showing that used appropriately, technology in the classroom does get kids more connected, collaborative and more engaged,” Davis said. “But it is possible to overdo it. For example, if kids are spending more time learning how to use an app and less time on the real lesson, it’s probably not an effective use of technology.”

Insider view

A programmer behind one of the bot programs, who goes by the name Dave Duck, said he was inspired to create Kahoot Smasher when his teacher tried to send a Kahoot as a way to review a lesson. Without a classroom full of students, the app didn’t work, and Duck programmed bots to simulate a full classroom.

He said he feels that Kahoot is limited in its applications: it’s best for language lessons or other subjects where the work can be quickly recapped.

“In my experience it’s an ineffective way of actually teaching or testing anything; the questions are too short, and the environment doesn’t lend itself to critical thinking,” Duck said.

Duck said Kahoot Smasher has had 3 million unique users since he first reverse-engineered the program as a high school student three years ago. Despite his skill with and interest in programming, he would prefer to see less technology in the classroom.

“I have never had any positive experience with technology in classrooms, there are just too many problems: the Wi-Fi’s always unusable, the software’s bad or even the internet is being used to replace textbooks,” Duck said. “To better use technology, I would avoid using it unless there’s not an alternative or the lesson itself is about technology. After all, there’s nothing worse than having to make a movie analyzing a poem.”

Kahoot’s take

The vice president of product for Kahoot, James Micklethwait, said he is aware of hackers affecting a small percentage of Kahoot’s 70 million users. The company takes those instances very seriously, Micklethwait said, with a team working on bot detection.

“Balancing security with usability is the big question,” Micklethwait said. “We could secure Kahoot tomorrow, but it would kill the user experience, because everyone would have to log in.”

Micklethwait said he is surprised to learn that some students are hacking Kahoot due to frustration at the competitive element, which he said is an integral part of what makes Kahoot fun. He said teachers can try to mitigate any students feeling left out by using a feature called Team Mode, but that research has shown that Kahoot engages students who typically don’t participate in classroom discussions.

For additional security, the company has implemented a two-step verification process: in addition to entering a PIN for the quiz, users will also be asked to enter a visual string of shapes that will change every few seconds, making it much harder for someone outside of the classroom to join the Kahoot.

Micklethwait said teachers also have the option to turn on a nickname generator that will assign students fun, g-rated nicknames instead of allowing them to make their own.

“Part of the reason they do this is for the peer recognition of putting up a naughty username in front of everyone in the classroom,” Micklethwait said. “If you take that recognition away, the need to do this goes away, too.”

Aleksandra Appleton, 559-341-3747, @aleksappleton