Who is to blame for plagiarism: technology, lecturers or context?

At the Plagiarism Conference 2006 Baroness Ruth Deech, the first Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education gave a presentation which has been widely reported on the Web and in the press. It was interesting to note that the conference was co-sponsored by Turnitin’s UK arm. Rather than sound entirely negative the conference proceedings are online and, from the titles, there looks to be some good stuff.

Some of the comments online, especially from Digg and ArsTechnia which both include a fair number of student comments.

It is being widely reported, because of the title of the Times article, that plagiarism is the fault of indulgent lecturers. The Chronicle of Higher Education also carries the story with some interesting comments.

It suprises me that such views are getting such airplay as they miss the point entirely. My problems with these views include

  • The idea that there is a single cause of academic misconduct
  • That the primary cause is rooted in either the students or the teachers
  • The idea of placing blame is not exactly a helpful way to frame the conversation
  • That a change or introduction of technology will reduce academic misconduct

What was said

First, in the press Baroness Deech’s views are often reported along with a comment from Gill Clarke of the UK “education watchdog the Quality Assurance Agency”. From the Times article

Gill Clarke, of the education watchdog the Quality Assurance Agency, said that students should be made aware that most universities were using detection software, such as Turnitin, to spot plagiarism.

Baroness Deech’s views include the following, taken from an article in the Australian newspaper

“There is a culture of expectation among today’s students,” she says. “They just take whatever is put in their hands, be it a handout or a PowerPoint presentation. That way you end up boiling down complex things to three bullet points.

Taking down notes in longhand from a book is better than cutting and pasting from the internet, she says, because it requires students to digest material.

Taking notes is the solution

This point basically ignores most of what the educational literature has to say about learning. Learning isn’t enabled by copying content by hand. Information distribution is not learning.

The limited influence of copy detection software

In the course I’m currently teaching we have used copy detection on all assessment items. Part of the assessment is designed using strategies suggested as best practice for helping minimise plagiarism.

Teaching staff have repeatedly mentioned that copy detection software will be used on all assignments. It’s mentioned in the course profile and in the course discussion forum.

Currently (term not quite finished) the copy detection reports on the 3 assignments are showing about 40 students (about 14% of the class) have something that might be academic misconduct. The course staff already have 17 offences entered into the institutions system for managing academic misconduct. That 17 only includes assignment 1 and a small part of assignment 2.

For assignment 2 the students were provided with 3 references (including direct links to online versions) to help them with a report. The copy detection report shows students with reports where 20%, 23%, 49%, 58% and 70% of the report is a direct copy from one of the references we provided.

What should change?

Changing the technology doesn’t appear to make any difference.

Baroness Deech comes close to a possible solution when she says

Students need to be told that their own thoughts about a subject are very important. They need to be challenged to respond in their own way instead of downloading, cutting and pasting. The weighing up of views, the encouraging of nonconformity, the imbuing of intellectual tradition of inquiry are getting lost. If lecturers can imbue students with the view that they are searching rather than copying, then we might go some way towards tackling plagiarism.

The only way I see that we can “imdbue” our students with this view is if our primary form of teaching moves away from the information distribution model that emphasizes traditional lectures and textbooks and move towards more modern, effective pedagogies.

The Program in Course Redesign was a project that used technology as the basis for 30 different US Universities to redesign their instructional approaches to achieve cost savings and quality improvements.

The results from the last round included

  • Average savings of 39%
  • 8 of the 10 projects reporting improved learning outcomes, the other two reported no significant difference
  • 5 of the 10 projects showed improved course completion, 1 reported no change, 1 showed reduced completion (the other 3 did not measure course completion)

From the lessons page

All ten projects have effected significant shifts in the teaching-learning enterprise, making it more active and learner-centered. The primary goal is to move students from a passive, note-taking role to an active, learning orientation. Lectures are replaced with a wide variety of learning resources, all of which involve more active forms of student learning or more individualized assistance. In moving from an entirely lecture-based to a student-engagement approach, learning is less dependent on words uttered by instructors and more dependent on reading, exploring, and problem-solving undertaken actively by students.

Why isn’t it being done – who is to “blame”?

The type of change described by the Program for Course Redesign is large scale innovation within existing organisational settings. This type of thing is extremely difficult and time consuming and involves a great deal of battling against organisational norms. How is a poor academic expected to do something like this without organisational support at the highest levels?

For example, think of yourself as an academic who is thinking of implementing this sort of change. But your organisational context has the following characteristics

  • Increasing emphasis on research.
    The rhetoric from senior management is that research, in the form of top journal publications, is important. You hear from selection committees for new jobs at your institution using the publication/research record of new applicants as the main criteria.
  • On-going restructure and review
    For the last 4 or 5 years the academic unit and the institution as a whole has been either on-hold waiting for, or involved in organisational restructures and the introduction of new senior management. You’ve just heard that there are also going to a number of other reviews in the coming months.
  • Limitations of current models and processes
    The complexity of your institutions teaching means that there are a range of support units and other commercial organisations which manage aspects of teaching delivery. Those units have adopted specific models for the delivery of teaching that enshrine the traditional lecture/tutorial approach for face-to-face delivery. For a range of reasons they are very reluctant to change those models.

In this context, is it really the fault of the academic if he/she decides that it’s better to concentrate on the research than trying to actively engage with the large scale innovation around teaching and learning that is necessary to seriously address this issue?

Even if the issue is made to engage, how is it suggested that necessary organisational changes be made?