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This blog was started as my reflections on the 2011 Change MOOC. It is now an on going journal of my thoughts on Higher Education, specifically teaching Biology.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Plagiarism (Why I MOOC)

Yesterday I was mired in a project, so I didn't join in the #MOOCMOOC discussions.  Today, the facilitators have assigned everyone to work with Storify.  I'm only a marginal fan of Storify, as I haven't really gotten good submissions from students (they are overwhelmed in most of life that this was just a little too overwhelming).  In general I see it as an alternative route for people it speaks to.  Since I'm not really in that group, I'm going to hold off on this leg of the tech tour that is #MOOCMOOC.

Ultimately, the reason why I MOOC is to listen to what other people are thinking and talking about, and then reflect on that.  It is the alternative perspectives, the conflicting views, and the stray thought that leads to a revelation.  The facilitators at #MOOCMOOC have not really added to the conversation (articles and tools have been out there for a while), but what they have done is provide a time point where people interested in open learning connect.  That is ultimately the story that I want to take part in this week.

Today in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffery R. Young presented an article entitled Dozens of Plagiarism Incidents Are Reported in Coursera's Free Online Courses.  The interesting item from the article is that people will plagiarize in an online course even when it is for no credit!  The author further discusses how some view this as a teachable moment (some cultures see copying as a way of showing honor and esteem for the work's creator), cautioning people from being over zealous or flaming the offender.

The part I loved the best was when a student claimed that they did not know that copying was wrong.  I had a student tell me that recently (a senior).  I asked him if he had read my syllabus (which discusses academic honesty), or the section on plagiarism on every assignment, or the tutorial that was posted on plagiarism.  He avoided the questions, saying that he did not know copying was wrong.  This conversation kept going on and on until he finally admitted that he did not read the syllabus or take the tutorial, and only glanced at the assignment instructions.  The teachable moment here was a little more basic (read what you are assigned to read, and read instructions).

I try to make plagiarism very simple for my students.  We are in the biological sciences, and it is extremely rare for anyone to use quotes in scientific papers.  So the first thing I tell students is that they may not quote or copy from any source.  The next thing I emphasize is that they must use their own words.  That one phrase, their own words, is repeated throughout the semester.  If they come and ask, I tell them that I'll sit down and help them; I never give them the sentence, but try to help them work out what they want to say.  But, this is where the reflection begins...

Today, I started really asking myself what I consider plagiarism in the world of web 2.0.  When is it sharing, remixing or plagiarism?  There are posts in facebook, and even twitter, that I know were taken directly off of a website with no citation or hyperlink (which I'm starting to see as a form of citation).  Would I consider that plagiarism?  No, not really.  But why?

We have the distinction between formal and informal writing.  A facebook post is considered informal, as is twitter and any other form of social media.  In the informal setting, we don't use all the formal rules of English.  It is in this social setting that we can hash out our thoughts, put them out there for people to comment on, critic, or just to return to for reflection.

Back in high school, when I had to write a term paper, I had to sit there and make note cards that would be turned in for a grade.  There was a formal structure for making these note cards, and a formal structure for organizing them so that they could be linked to my formal outline.  All of the instructions were codified in my textbook and had been presented to me in lecture by my teacher.  We all had to follow that structure.  As you may be able to tell, my mind did not work in that formal structure.  I bowed under the academic pressure and did it, then threw them out before I started to write the paper.  It actually amazes me when I see colleagues using that system; my mind just does not wrap around that structure.  (Actually, let me just say that HATED writing high school term papers, mainly because they were so fragging structured).

The reason for that story is to reconsider how people can use informal settings to work out thoughts.  On those pesky note cards, you were suppose to copy "QUOTES" from the book, as well as make notes.  Well, can't those also be done in some form of digital setting (and no I don't want digital note cards).  What if you could allow others to comment?  In other words, what if informal writing assignments are used as a way to help students hash out their thoughts. 

I didn't realize it at first, but this I think was the reasoning behind the blogging leading to milestone papers I do in my classes.  The idea is simple, and now I'm seeing it as more powerful.  The blog is a tool, open to others in the class or world, where you work out a specific concept.  You then bring the blogs together in constructing your paper.  The paper is FORMAL, thus it must follow the formal rules of English, be cited, and free of plagiarism.  The blog was where you took the work of others and converted it into your own words.

I'll leave this for now, but I would love to hear your thoughts on this idea...