Month: June 2016

The context of plagiarism

I need to write the acknowledgments section of my dissertation but I can’t help going back to Maha and Groom’s post on the ethos of educational technologies. Now I’m thinking about plagiarism in higher education courses, what it means for instructors and for learners themselves. In every undergraduate class I taught there were always one or two students who copied material from other resources and used them in their work without appropriate references. However, I’m very careful to say that they were plagiarizing, because in my experience, most students want to do a good job in their projects and they don’t understand why copying content without references may not be appropriate. Consider this:

In a ceramics class the instructor tells student that she can’t just copy a design from a book onto her vase. Student tries to explain that the design is traditional and anonymous. Instructor isn’t interested. She cuts the conversation by firmly saying “No. That is not your design. You can’t use it. That’s plagiarizing.” The instructor is patient but it’s clear that the conversation is over. The student is offended, can’t understand the instructor’s point of view. The instructor can’t understand the student’s point of view.

Ehem, so that student was of course me. 🙂 To give this incident a little bit of context, that was my 2nd year in Minnesota and I had a book that I brought me from Turkey on traditional shadow puppets Hacivat and Karagoz. This was a precious book; my husband’s grandmother (who is now 99) had given it to me. Its pages were falling apart and that day I must have taken it to the class with great care. I’m sure I was excited about using it for my project. But I remember coming home frustrated and disappointed. I hated the instructor (although I’m sure she had good intentions), and why were we so far away from home anyway?

hacivat-and-karagoz--1

Picture taken from here

So you can clearly see how context complicates things when it comes to plagiarism (to this date I still don’t know if it was ok to use the design on my vase). This experience significantly shaped how I go about plagiarism in my own classes. In one class focusing on children’s and youth’s use of social media, students were given the option to design an educational website on a topic of their choice for their final project. To my surprise one student in the class, and she was doing really well in class discussions and in other class activities, copied most of the content of her site from other sites. The website itself looked really nice; it wasn’t a last-minute project where she dumped all the content to her site. When I brought the issue to her attention, she panicked. She explained to me she never had the intent to plagiarize stuff. She wanted to make her site look good, professional. By taking content from other credible sites she was making sure that she was providing professional content.

I believe it’s the instructor’s responsibility to offer as much guidance and support as possible long before a project begins to avoid issues like this. And this is not only about  technical guidance or even about ethics. It is also about helping students understand that a course project, a website, a blog post, an essay, can always be a work in progress. It can always be improved and they shouldn’t be afraid of failing. What matters is the way they go about their work rather than the end result. I have had hundreds of undergraduate students in my courses and in most cases of plagiarism (using it for the lack of a better term), I chose to trust my students. Even if they were being dishonest it didn’t matter because I knew that when I had a positive attitude and when I believed that they approached their work with all the best intentions, our relationship would always, always be better.

So when we use a tool like Turnitin in our classes, what are we saying to our students? I wouldn’t prefer to use the tool in my classes because I don’t think it gives the right message to students. I think it creates power issues between instructors and students when actually it’s so much more important to remove those barriers in a meaningful way. And when you know your students, you just know when something is not quite right 🙂 and you can always use that as a way to improve your relationships in class.

The schizophrenic Moodle

picasso-portrait of sylvette david~b99_1433

Picture taken from here

Can we separate the way we teach from the technological systems in which we work? This question was posed by Maha Bali and Jim Groom in a thought-provoking post critically examining the ethos of educational technologies. Maha and Jim argue that the choices we make in educational technology say something about our values and pedagogical visions–they are inseparable from how we go about teaching and learning.

Couldn’t agree more. When I was teaching online classes in Learning Technologies at the University of Minnesota most faculty and graduate instructors were using Ning as an alternative to Moodle (institutionally supported) because its design better aligned with the values of the program. In Aaron Doering’s words, the goal in LT courses was “for students to discover and create knowledge as a group, with the instructor acting as a guide through the assigned materials” and Ning was a great platform to achieve that. A lot of what we were doing in Ning was driven by pedagogy but we were also guided by the possibilities and limitations of the platform itself. On the plus side learners could easily get a sense of others’ presence in the course through features like member pages, blogs, discussions, chat and photos and videos. There were small design touches we liked a lot, like how each forum post appeared with a member thumbnail picture. (In a class I’ve taken as graduate student all students had administrative access to Ning so we could even change the design of the platform if we wanted to.) On the other hand, I had to grade students’ work and Ning didn’t have a gradebook, I couldn’t set up assignments or create a sophisticated system to archive course resources. After all Ning wasn’t originally designed as a Learning Management System (LMS) and the way it worked was so different than Moodle, which is specifically designed for that purpose. I’m not saying that Ning is better than Moodle, it’s just for our purposes Ning seemed to work best.

Now I’m going to diverge a bit because it is really interesting to think about the multiple layers of values and visions embedded in educational technology. Especially when we think about technologies that are designed specifically for the purpose of education, like a course management system.

Let’s consider Moodle, for example. I find the misalignment between the ethos of the Moodle developer community and the end product quite puzzling for example. Let me explain:

Moodle as a design project: is community driven, globally supported, open-source.
Moodle as an LMS (how the end-product is typically used in higher education institutions):  is institutionally driven, locally supported, closed. Also supports the use of copyrighted materials because it’s institutional (this is one point I deviate from Maha and Jim because they argue that LMSs are copyright havens).

I believe there is a strong mismatch between Moodle as a design project and Moodle as an LMS because there’s a disconnect between the field of computer science and education in general  online learning. A recent TaLIC lunchtime conversation where two (brilliant) computer scientists presented their work also made me realize the big gap between the two fields.

Solution? More partnership, more conversation between computer science and education and less bias toward our own assumptions and the paradigms of each field. Result: (potentially) innovative products to use in education. What do you think?