Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cut and paste

copy culture by Will Lion, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  Will Lion

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that many cases of plagiarism have been discovered on free, open courses run by Coursera: Dozens of Plagiarism Incidents Are Reported in Coursera's Free Online Courses. This is no real surprise since the nature of massive open online courses is freedom and flexibility and of course the opportunities for cheating would seem to be enormous. The puzzling point here is that these courses do not lead to university credits so what's the point of cheating?

However some students are cheating and one professor has already made a plea to curb plagiarism and there is talk of using plagiarism-detection software in the future (as is standard at many universities already). The main point of the Chronicle article is that the these cases have been discovered by other students through peer assessment rather than being left to the teachers to detect. Students have raised suspicions of plagiarism and taken them to the professors but instead of dishing out punishments many teachers see this as a teachable moment:

In an interview this week with The Chronicle, Mr. Rabkin, who is also an English professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, said he sees the plagiarism incidents as a "teachable moment." He said one student wrote him soon after he posted his letter and confessed to submitting a plagiarized essay, but the student said he had not realized that copying and pasting from other sources was wrong. The student asked that his essay be withdrawn and that he be disqualified from receiving a certificate, but Mr. Rabkin said he wrote to Coursera officials saying the student should be given a second chance.

Although there are cases of deliberate plagiarism I think most cases are due to a lack of awareness of what constitutes plagiarism and many cases could be avoided with some hands-on training. An excellent example of how to increase awareness of plagiarism is described in an article in Faculty Focus: An Assignment that Prevents Plagiarism. Here students were given a sample essay written by the teacher and fully referenced but which contained 10 examples of different types of plagiarism. The students' task was to spot the plagiarism and rewrite the essay correctly and finally adding their own referenced conclusion. By doing this excercise the students became more aware of what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. According to the study this type of work reduces plagiarism radically.

There are of course stern warnings against plagiarism in every syllabus and college regulations but the whole concept is still abstract and poorly defined in the minds of the students. Only by raising the issues in a practical manner as described above can students grasp what is allowed and develop a sensitivity for what is not acceptable. The fact that plagiarism has been discovered in a MOOC says nothing really about the nature of the course itself, simply that this is an issue that few students today have a clear grasp of.

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