Saturday, January 19, 2008

Plagiarism – blame academia not students

Professor Tara Brabazon (Media Studies!), at my local University of Brighton, has banned the use of Google and Wikipedia by her students. This is utterly stupid and banal. I assume she hasn’t banned them from her website with links to Amazon to buy her books (including the academic masterpiece ‘Ladies Who Lunge’ – read the extract and weep). Incidentally, Tara seems to have made that classic cut-and-paste error in her own online piece on Google; repeating paragraphs twice!

Educate, don’t ban
Academics like Brazabon have a cheek bleating on about plagiarism. If her students submit banal, cut-and-paste essays, she should be the person we blame. Tens of thousands of pounds for a University degree and we all we get are academics who inspire this kind of reaction from their students!

She needs to think more about educating her students than banning the media of the age. The easy and efficient access to knowledge is a good thing, and quite separate from how things are learnt. It’s not the medium that’s at fault, it’s how that content is mediated by students and their teachers. These are two entirely different things.

Address the cause, not the effect
Well constructed, exemplar essays are precisely what a student needs as course material. That’s why they pay sites like If academics got to know their students better and used on-going formative feedback as part of their jobs, then the lazy ‘set and submit’ essay model wouldn’t allow or encourage plagiarism on any scale. Ask students to submit an outline, then a short form essay and finally a full blown piece of work. Get them to blog. Speak to them. Don’t just set the task and mark the results. That’s not teaching, it’s simply assessment, and bad assessment at that.

What’s happening here is simply the old guard not understanding how newer forms of knowledge dissemination work. Has this academic banned her researchers or lecturers from using Google? I doubt it. Students are smart and are simply reacting to a tired old system. The customers are just puzzled and tired of the old higher education model (I hesitate to describe it as pedagogy).

Lectures, lectures, lectures
It’s a wonder that students learn at all with such little face-to-face teaching – three dull lectures a week, usually by researchers with poor presentation skills and a deep desire to avoid teaching. They are literally stuck in the rut of this medieval mode of teaching. If they were any good they’d at least record the stuff for review by students. They don’t, of course, because it’s often pitifully bad. See my previous post on lectures.

Poor guidance
Inadequate guidance is the norm in higher education courses, that’s why students clamour for past papers – it’s often the only way of finding out what you are expected to cover in the course. Most lecturers don’t understand even the basics in the psychology of learning and need for clear structure, formative feedback and support.

A reading list is to a course
Then there’s little or no adequate course material. Little is prepared in any structured fashion for students. They are literally abandoned with a library card and a reading list. These reading lists are often idiosyncratic so it would be much better to let the student do the research BEFORE having these fixed, recommended texts. This has been exposed in institutions with VLEs, where the published guidance for courses is woeful. A reading list is not a course!

Legitimise plagiarism
Differentiate between search and research through the use of citations. Google and Wikipedia have tons of citations, and when there’s controversy, there’s the ‘history’ and ‘discussion’ tabs. Teach students how to do research and give plenty of support on constructing the piece of submitted work.

Remember that the web contains hundreds of thousands of texts, textbooks and books, many which are now out of print and not found in individual University libraries. They are quick to access, allow text search and save time and money.

In any case it’s rather easy to catch this sort of plagiarism by running the content through a check engine. If she had checked she would have seen that the University of Brighton is registered with the JISC Plagiarism Service and Turnitin. Is the Professor just too lazy to use them? This is the real world. Google, Wikipedia and the web are not going away. They’ll be around long after these luddites have retired. I suggest we simply accelerate their exit from the system.


Anonymous said...

I remember a long long time ago thinking something a student had written was vaguely familiar and working out he had copied part of my thesis word for word. When I pointed out that the university regarded such blatant copying rather seriously, he pointed out that most lecturers' lectures are plagiarised. Game, set and match.

I think we should concentrate less on worrying about copying and more on whether students are able to find relevant information, evaluate it well, generate insights, and present coherently and engagingly while at the same time allowing us some overview of their sources. There is value to the audience not only in hearing their point of view but also in learning what research they have done so that we can begin where they left off.

I've been thinking of developing a system where students contribute to a class wiki and the final mark is based on "what is left standing" - what remains at the end that was yours and how many other students refer to it. Of course, cute pictures and raunchy stories might win the day, but somehow, in the end I think not. Students have a lot of pride.

And there is no reason why each class has to start again. The could inherit the wiki compiled by the previous year and build on it.

John Wootton said...

Use software like 'Write Online' from Crick Software which keeps a running record of text cut and pasted into the document.

Your story is typical of symptoms of the Government's strategy. As long as they think learning can be measured in league tables etc .. non-educational responses from lecturers, teachers etc .will pervade.

John Wootton said...

The new phrase I believe is ... "Don't blame the player, blame the game"

Anonymous said...

nice post

Anonymous said...

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