SIMPLE and plagiarism

by Paul Maharg on 01/06/2008

Last week I was asked to present at a HEA conference, Grasping the nettle: designing assessment to reduce plagiarism, held in the Oxford Centre. The keynote speaker, Jude Carroll, started proceedings with a forthright piece on the importance of learning & teaching design and assessment alternatives. Very interesting points raised. Key questions in the authentication of assessment that require to be asked, according to her, are – who did this work? Whose work am I marking? How do we know this?

She went on to give examples of exams that built on or re-assessed coursework learning:
1. Meta-tasks eg write about writing; revise the programme etc
2. Observe the work in progress
3. Checking consistency on achievements in other work
4. Vivas/oral exams

Jude’s approach led me to think about a related issue, namely that there may be a contrast between the need for authentication of student work, and the presence of authenticity in assessment task. So where, for example, there is less thinking given over to the design of assessment tasks by academic staff, there is a greater need for authentication procedures. But where there is greater authenticity of assessment task, there may be less need for authentication procedures, either because these are built into the task, or because the design of the task renders such procedures redundant.

She pointed out that 3 years ago there were almost no ghost writing and contract cheating sites. Now there are 250 in the UK (Robert Clarke’s figures). It’s a substantial little industry. In a recent Guardian article the journalist writing the piece posed as a student, asking for offers to contract-ghost an essay and complete a computer code activity, and her offer was viewed 399 times, generated 38 responses and offers as low as £30 for such services. According to Clarke, students post to such sites within hours of the assignment. For more info, see the wikipedia entry on contract cheating.

What should we do about this? According to Jude, we should stop ignoring the issue. We should also challenge those who say we ought to return to traditional exams. We should think ‘assessment +’. We ought to remember that contract cheating has grown fast, probably in response to Turnitin, and may fade fast, too — she observed that the rising graphs match each other. She also exhorted us to remember that intentional plagiarism is a decision made by students. They think cost/benefit analysis and review the penalties. We ought to resist taking a moral stance. It also makes interventions harder.

So, asked Jude, what will work? Interrogation by informed, respectful analysis groups will work. Careful timing will help – when we design, and how. Creating legitimate institutional opportunities; case studies, examples and evidence of impact. A campaign for real assessment – CAMRA. Be patient, she observed, choose likely winners and keep the faith. It’s about culture change and institutional change.

A number of the themes she raised were touched on by other speakers. For instance in one of the sessions I attended there was debate about the extent to which one could impute intentionality to acts of plagiarism. Some speakers quote the difficulties that postgraduate students, particularly overseas students, have in recognising the precise nature of the research activities demanded of them, and the stigma attached to plagiarism. The day’s activities were interesting in that they showed how we can re-design learning activities – good case studies, with slides on the conference site (above).

I was presenting on the SIMPLE project, and the effect that this had on plagiarism. I’ve never actually written on the subject before, though obviously it’s something that we’ve designed into the simulation environment for the past seven years, not least because free-loading and plagiarism are aspects that we encountered early on in the design process; so I was interested to take time to set down what we actually think about plagiarism and the SIMPLE approach to learning and assessment. Here’s a summary of my argument, in four parts.

1. Plagiarism is not just about students being selfish, or narcissistic behaviour, or academic cheating or a syndrome or lack of integrity or anything else.

2. We create fertile conditions for it to flourish by our teaching & assessment designs, and in particular:
• lack of apprenticeship models
• insufficient situated learning & assessment
• poor academic literacy support within disciplines

3. We need to re-design the ecology of learning, eg:

a. trading zones, for students > students, staff > staff, students > staff
See Peter Galison’s groundbreaking study of the material culture of modern experimental micro-physics – Galison, P. (1997) Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics I quote Galison’s work in my book because he has such valuable things to say about the nature of interdisciplinarity. For him, a trading zone is a place where theorists, writers, experimenters, instrument designers, policy-makers, politicians and others meet, share knowledge and do collaborative research. Parties traded content and method; they imposed constraints on each other; disciplines & practices coordinated but without homogenising; they communicated in pidgins and creoles to express and absorb each other’s essential concepts.

b. teach rhetorical models via games, sims, debriefs, PBL, etc.
In this respect see the early work of Flower & Hayes, Scardamalia & Bereiter; New Literacies movement; the New London Group; James Gee, etc… This body of research is telling us how much the process of learning contributes to the product; and yet we still insist on focusing doggedly on product and eclipse process. In legal education, see for instance the work of James Stratman, Dorothy Deegan, and Leah Christensen on the effect of professional identity on student reading & writing strategies (analysed briefly in my book).

What is clear is that each discipline needs to invent methods to embed these approaches in its teaching, learning & assessment; and assess student performance based on their learning of rhetorical models. In doing so, we’ll be giving students the support and feedback that they need when they are In this respect Baudrillard’s words are still a powerful indictment of the situation we force many students into:

‘Many university students are unable to cope with the technical and scholastic demands made on their use of language as students. They cannot define the terms which they hear in lectures or which they themselves use. They are remarkably tolerant of words lifted from the language of ideas but applied inappropriately or irrelevantly, and they accept sloppiness and incorrectness with resigned indifference. The lexis and syntax of examination scripts and essays written during the year offer a still more unchallengeable test of linguistic misunderstanding. Constrained to write in a badly understood and poorly mastered language, many students are condemned to using a rhetoric of despair whose logic lies in the reassurance that it offers. Through a kind of incantatory or sacrificial rite, they try to call up and reinstate the tropes, schemas or words which to them distinguish professorial language. Irrationally and irrelevantly, with an obstinacy that we might too easily mistake for servility, they seek to reproduce this discourse in a way which recalls the simplifications, corruptions and logical re-workings that linguists encounter in “creolized” languages.’
Bourdieu, P., Passeron, J.-C. and de Saint Martin, M. (1994) Academic Discourse: Linguistic Misunderstanding and Professorial Power, trans. R. Teese (Cambridge, Polity Press), p.4

The research on rhetoric is enhanced by the research on Web 2.0 apps, and the connectionist nexus of George Siemens and others. If Web 2.0 apps enhance social learning, collaboration, what effect will this have on the practice of plagiarism? It may have a beneficial effect, if Web 2.0 is used to transform academic teaching practice Or may become yet one more example of e-plagiarism. Gerry McKiernan’s blog has interesting things to say on this, as does the 2008 Horizon Report.

c. transactional learning
This of course is a key form of learning for us. It could be regarded as a specific form of PBL with at least seven distinguishing elements –
active learning
through performance in authentic transactions
involving reflection in & on learning,
deep collaborative learning, and
holistic or process learning,
with relevant professional assessment
that includes ethical standards

– all of which, I would hold, can have a significant effect on plagiarism when used in simulations of professional practice.

4. Finally I demonstrated some aspects of the SIMPLE project for delegates who were at my session, focusing on what the results of the SIMPLE project were as far as plagiarism is concerned The following points summarised our work to date.

a. Students co-opted to community-police plagiarism. We try to emphasise, through the operation of Practice Management for instance, the importance of professionalism within transactions. Ethical behaviour is critical, and ethical behaviour includes avoiding plagiarism and free-loading.

b. Students carry out authentic client-based work, not artificial, assessment-led tasks. In this way, while peer-assessment and tutor feedback is important, client feedback is even more important. Some transactions such as the PI project contains this, but it is less present in other simulations. However we are now trying to build in more client feedback into our transactions.

c. ICT is used to create multiple versions of tasks via document variables + support for tasks: feedforward. The use of variables in this way is a powerful deterrent to plagiarism. If all transactions are different in crucial ways, there are no real drivers for plagiarism: instead, students collaborate on the multiple tasks they require to carry out.

d. Students take responsibility for their transactional learning, their files, their clients, their firm. In other words assessment encourages ownership, not submission; it enhances collaboration, not plagiarism; and in turn staff take responsibility for designing transactional learning that enhances this.

But what about tools to stop free-loading within/between firms? The slide shows on Slideshare that deal with this have shown what we do in this regard, and it needs no rehearsal here.

Does all this stop plagiarism? Of course not. There is no magic bullet solution. Turnitin and other software may have seemed such when they first appeared, but plagiarism is a complex problem that requires a thoughtful response from staff – not merely in re-design of assessment, but in providing support for student learning.

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