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Jul 30, 2008


A happy week was completely ruined by plagiarism cases I discovered in my graduate class. I don't really know why, but it always makes me very upset. Somehow, it always feels like I failed, too. No matter how many times I warn students, and how explicitly the policy is stated on my syllabus, it still feels yucky, like when you see someone stealing. I might be just grumpy today, but it really is unpleasant to be deceived. I am sure those of you who ever was deceived or robbed remember the feeling of being violated. It is not the stuff or money that you miss, but your own sense of… I don't know, cleanliness?

Why students do it, I am not entirely sure. I don't remember having any inclination or temptation of cheating when I was a student, so it is hard for me to relate. Partly, it just became very easy to do. The instant access to information means instant, effortless stealing opportunity. I don't believe for a minute that students now are less honest than before. In the past, it simply took too much effort to plagiarize. One had to go to a library, find a book, re-type some text. Plagiarism is usually a cope-out for people who are insecure, stressed, and overcommitted. Dishonest, too. But because they are also short on time, effort makes a lot of difference. Old plagiarism was less harmful, because simply retyping text made the offender learn something. Copying and pasting teaches one nothing except for the skill of copying and pasting.

Of course, professors can fight back, and that is what we should do. If we don't, we may as well just sell the diplomas; we are no better than snake oil sellers. As objective standardized tests are used less and less frequently, we must make sure the performance-based assessment is not compromised, or we will run into deep trouble. Unopposed, plagiarism will ruin higher education in no time, because no link between credentials and competence will remain. So, this is a call to arms.

As a first step, ask your students to submit a file even if you prefer to grade hard copies. We should try to check very paper for every class.

  • Open a blank file, go to Insert, Object, Text from file. Then select all files student submitted, and insert them all at once. You will get a huge, hundreds of pages file. Of course, you can do it with individual files, if they look suspicious.
  • Then go to ANY shell of Blackboard, Control Panel, and click on SafeAssign.
  • After that, click on Direct Submit, and then on Submit papers button.
  • Once you submit, give it several minutes to work its magic. It will produce a report that will begin with something like this:
  • Click on all instances of plagiarism (they are numbered in little green circles), and on Highlight All, and then manually recheck. Sometimes a student uses legitimate quotes, and the system does not know it. However, it also finds real instances, even if a few words are changed to conceal plagiarism. It is important to re-check manually though, to avoid false accusations.

Jul 17, 2008

On stupidity

Two nights ago, I was building a headboard for our bed; something I promised Svetlana to do for a very long time. Like most men, I have to look at the materials (nice pine boards) for some time, and make a mental plan, step by step, of how things should work. Then I started to work, and one thing was annoying. Because I have only one drill, I had to constantly pull out the drill bit, and put in the Phillips bit for screws, and then back. It's not essential to know the details; basically, in this particular project, you could not pre-drill all holes and then screw in all screws, not without spending another hour calculating fractions, and measuring everything very precisely.

Anyway, about half-way through, I realized just how stupid my plan was, and that there was a much easier solution: nail all the boards lightly just to keep them in place; then drill all the holes, every time putting the nail back into the hole to hold the construction, and then screw all in. I think everyone had that experience, the sudden acknowledgement of one's own stupidity. It does not have to be carpentry, of course. Sometimes you ask a question, and before you finish, you just realize well, this is a really stupid question, because the answer is quite obvious. The headboard project made me think about the nature of stupidity.

It is not mental retardation or low intellect; that is not what I have in mind at all. Rather, it is when regular, reasonably intelligent people do something stupid, as if the brain just checks out for a moment (sometimes for longer periods of time). It is obvious that everyone has those moments; some of us are better at hiding those, while others are great at denials, and will always find someone else to blame for their brain malfunctions. Teachers, for example, tend to attribute kids' stupid actions to immaturity; they routinely deny or ignore their own blunders. Stupidity is embarrassing, and it takes a great amount of trust to acknowledge and own up to it, especially when other people are involved. Notice, my example was extremely safe: it only cost me an extra hour or so of work, and did not hurt anyone. I could probably come up with a more relevant and recognizable one from work, but then it's too embarrassing, and involves others.

What bothers me is not the stupid things we all do on occasion, but the denial that we do them. For example, one can do the same dumb thing for years, simply because one denies that it is excessively stupid. Instead of acknowledging (even to oneself), and fixing the problem, one just continues doing it. This is not inertia, or lack of imagination, not that. A more subtle mechanism is in place: if you try to change certain process, you implicitly acknowledge that what you did before was, well, not that smart. The question that inevitably arises is, why did you put up with that all that time? Paradoxically, greater tolerance to stupidity is the main way of reducing its sway.

Embrace your inner idiot.

Jul 9, 2008

Virtual course

We had a great slowtalk with Elementary PTEP program this week. It is good to talk about the nitty-gritty of curriculum, and not about data, accountability, and other such boring stuff. One interesting issue we encountered is with curriculum strands. For example, we do not have a special class on classroom assessment. It would make sense to teach this content in several different classes, as a curricular strand or a theme. However, once you try to figure out how it works, the task is not simple. Do we hit the same skills and content in different classes? But then it might be redundant. Do we build a specific sequence of skills and content? But how do we make sure there is continuity, and that all instructors teach it? This is an interesting challenge, because we are used to think in terms of courses: there is specific content, outline, calendar, readings; one person is in charge of it; it has assignments, tests or other evaluations, and a grade. The strands or themes are hard to conceptualize and implement, because they encroach on faculty independence, and just require too much time for constant collaboration. There is no mechanism of enforcement.

Here is one possible solution. What if we use the same mental tools that we are used to, to manage the strands? In general, it is easier to think about a new problem, if you can cast in terms of an old problem. We can develop a virtual course called "Classroom Assessment." It will have a syllabus, content, readings, assignments, and tests, just like any other course. However, within it, there will be several sections: "You will learn this in EDEL 350, as a course within the course. It will be 20% of your course grade." And then the next section: "You will learn this in EDEL 445, and it will make 10% of your grade." The course will take three or four real courses to complete, and students themselves would carry records from previous evaluations from course to course. Instructors of each real course will then be more or less bound to the virtual course's syllabus, because students will expect it. Students will be able to see some coherence in the strand, so that assignments build on each other to reinforce and develop skills, and that their knowledge is gradually expanding. It will also avoid redundancy, where instructors use the same reading, or the same assignment, or just cover the same content.

Everyone likes to tweak what we teach and how we teach, hence the curricular drift. But if we have a virtual course syllabus, whoever is changing his or her portion of it, will be compelled to see if the change does not affect other parts of the syllabus (again, in terms of redundancy and connection).

Taking this idea a little further, course sequences (for example, the literacy sequence), should really be thought of in terms of one long course, with one super-syllabus. The same objective: to make sure readings, content, assignments, and tests build on each other, rather than overlap. And if they overlap, it is by choice, to reinforce certain concepts. What do you all think?

Jul 5, 2008

Summer reading

Summertime, and the living is easy. I don't know how other people spend their down time. I was reading (and also listening to podcasts) abound mind-enhancement drugs, child sexuality, the Iberian Celts, robots, beekeeping, and other such unrelated stuff. In between, I am reading Jude the Obscure by Thomas Harding, editing my manuscript, watching good and bad TV.
My mind delights in random ideas; I love to know about human creativity, and about people's profound weirdness. Not sure where this comes from; probably genetic, from my nomadic ancestors. This always happens to me between writing projects; my brain needs food. It does not have to be educational research or philosophy. Rather, it has to be something different, something from the fields I don't actually know much about. That is the only way I know how to think.

Among other things, the eclectic summer reading puts me in an optimistic mood. As a species, we are at the top of our creativity. We have enormous creative powers, and have not been using even a portion of it. And nothing makes us more creative than a decently sized crisis. The $4 a gallon gas created the buzz of new ideas; people drive less, carpool more, and share efficient driving tips. Americans have cut back 30 billion miles over the last six months. Another two dollars increase, and we will start building public transportation. Isn't that the best thing that happened to America in the long time? I am waiting for that plug-in hybrid, and till then, my 84 Honda Civic will do nicely. Uninterrupted prosperity is a recipe for complacency. Our little corner of the woods, higher education, has been remarkably stable and successful. Just watch what happens when this model unravels. We all will become very creative and innovative overnight. Life is good, and it is going to get better.