Friday, July 16, 2010

Sourcing the Social Web

Crib sheets are archaic. They’ve long been replaced by camera phones, MP3 players, and scientific calculators. Cheating, which has always required some creativity, has gone high-tech. And though educators are taking steps to turn technology around on dishonest students, plagiarism remains a persistent problem. A few well chosen words typed into a search engine and that 15 page paper on Napoleon’s early expedition to Egypt has all but written itself. Are high-tech solutions the answer, or is it time to think about our relationship with information?

A recent feature by the New York Times reports that students taking exams in a testing center at the University of Central Florida aren’t allowed to chew gum because it could mask the use of hands-free cellular technology to share test material. If scratch paper is used, it is dated and collected at the end of the exam. And the computers themselves are recessed into desk tops so that students attempting to photograph the screen can be spotted easily. If an instructor has reason to suspect a student, the student’s work on the computer is recorded and a video camera tracks their actions. The footage is burned to a CD and kept as evidence if needed.

These tactics may work for in-house testing, but what about papers and written assignments? In the age of the social web, sharing is second nature for many students. Suzanne B. Lovett, a Bowdoin psychology professor believes that web-savvy students “see so many examples of text, music and images copied online without credit that they may not fully understand the idea of plagiarism.” For this reason, many universities now require training on plagiarism as a part of their admissions process. And students’ papers are scanned using Turnitin.com, a service that employs a database to check for copying. But some educators find that these preemptive methods violate the trust they want to build with their students by assuming that students will cheat if they have the opportunity.

The concern about cheating is certainly understandable: Students need to be able to think for themselves and access problem-solving tools successfully. But if the answers are within reach on Google, why not utilize those tools? We’re interacting with our world differently – additional information, should we want it, is usually only a hyperlink away, and facts are instantly knowable and constantly accessible. For subjects like math and chemistry, there is no substitute for knowing. But perhaps the issue of plagiarism can be dealt with in part by teaching students from an early age how to vet and cite Internet sources. This may soon become as important as understanding how multiplication works because we are increasingly turning to the web for information. It’s important to help students develop a sense of what can be trusted on the web. There was a time when Wikipedia was far from an acceptable source; it has grown more standard in recent years thanks in part to a growing movement to ensure accuracy by providing citations.

Educators like Shelly Blake-Plock and Mary Beth Hertz understand that digital and social technologies can have practical applications in the classroom Students are bringing technology with them into the classroom anyway, rather than allowing it to be a distraction, it’s time to consider how teaching methods can be adapted to reflect our new relationship with information. For this reason, the plagiarism tutorials, such as the one implemented by Duke University, for incoming freshmen is a good idea. The tutorial provides explanations for students on what constitutes plagiarism and asks students to determine if examples presented are plagiarized. One of the examples asks the student to evaluate collaboration, which has been made even easier with the web. The point is that students are used to engaging with one another digitally and may not think they are cheating if they share work between them.

Shutting down this dialogue is not necessarily a good idea. Educators often encourage collaboration in the classroom, and the web offers opportunities for groups and individuals to connect and share ideas like never before. Papers will still need to be written – in the student’s own words, of course – but perhaps digital and social technology tools can be harnessed to create a collective classroom community that can benefit everyone. Allowing students to share notes – or hyperlinks - can help expose them to different perspectives. This allows weaker students, who are the ones who are most likely to plagiarize according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, to benefit from resources that may help them engage material better. For this to work, though, everyone must participate. Students still need to be graded on their ability to understand and interact with the material meaningfully, but this may help ease some of the anxiety surrounding high status assignments. Cheating may have long been a part of the academic landscape, but the cultural shift in the way we view information provides an opportunity to steer students away from the temptation.


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