Friday, June 08, 2012

Plagiarism, TurnItIn, and Instructional Design

English: A photo I took in front of the Colleg...
Jeffery Maiten: A photo I took in front of the College of the Redwoods library after the rain (Source:  Wikipedia)
Here at College of the Redwoods, we use TurnItIn. TurnItIn is plagiarism detection software. We have it integrated with our learning management system's assignment tool so all papers that get uploaded to the assignment, get checked by TurnItIn. TurnItIn will connect to Blackboard, Moodle, WebCT, Angel, and Sakai (we use the latter). TurnItIn is basically the best software of its kind out there. I have used other software packages at other schools and none of them do as complete of a search as TurnItIn. It is not enough to just use Google. There are other efforts from the usual suspects, but none as complete or efficient as TurnItIn. Budgets being what they are, I recently checked out some free software. Interestingly enough, I selected a paragraph from one of my old blog postings as a test. The free software did not catch it as plagiarized. As a former English teacher, I have mixed feelings about plagiarism detection software. I would like to think that if you teach and model academic honesty that such measures are not necessary. That said, I know that classes other than composition don't always hove time to teach academic honesty, research and documentation. And there are other pressures on students that make the thought of saving time and effort by using the work of others more attractive. Some of what is called "plagiarism" comes from students not knowing how to properly cite their sources. I like to use reports from TurnItIn as teaching moments.

As an instructional designer, I have even more mixed feelings about using software to detect plagiarism. There are things that teachers can do to help prevent plagiarism:
  1. Teach writing as a process. If you require students to turn in the various stages of their paper - outline, discovery draft, bibliography, etc. then there is no room for the student to plagiarize. And when students try to circumvent the process, you know you are probably dealing with an academic honesty issue. 
  2. Dedicate a class session to academic honesty. This lets the students know that you value academic honesty and that you know how students can cheat. Make sure they get a copy of the school's academic honesty policy. Some even go so far as having the students sign a statement that says that they read and understand the policy. 
  3. Ask deeper questions. If the answers the students are giving you are coming from Wikipedia, then you are asking the wrong questions.Take a look at Bloom's Taxonomy and think about what kind of writing you are asking your students to do.
  4. Know your students. Get to know your students by asking them to keep a journal. Or begin the day with a short in-class writing assignment.If you know how they express themselves and at what level their writing is at, any changes would be a red flag for issues in the students' work.
  5. Bring in the students' experience. Ask the students to bring their experiences into the assignment. In part of your question, ask them to provide an example of a similar problem they have encountered in their previous work. Or have them interview a relative or employer.The learning theory Constructivism tells us that students learn best when they are able to apply what they are learning to past experience. 
  6. Let your students connect. Have the students work together on their revisions. Have them discuss their research in groups. This encourages students to bring their research to their audience. They can't discuss thoughts that are not their own. Also, this allows students to see how other students tackle assignments and research problems. 
  7. Make it relevant. Don't just ask students to take a position on a topic and argue for it. Require that they use a few news sources in their paper. I love teachers who complain about reading the same death penalty papers year after year. Change the assignment! Ask them to bring in a topic from the headlines. Have them find out what journalists or writers are covering their topic.
  8. Model academic honesty. Some of the same teachers who get worked up about plagiarism will sometimes be the same teachers who do not cite sources in their own class materials. Show students how it is done and why early and often. Start with that favorite quote or picture you put in your syllabus.
If you have other tips for preventing plagiarism or teaching academic honesty, I would love to hear from you in the comments!
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  1. The fact that TurnItIn "works" seems somewhat secondary to me - what about the fact that it takes student work, and subsequently profits from that work (through selling the "more accurate" service) and that students and schools need to pay for accessing a service that degrades the interaction between teacher and student?

    While TurnItIn can be used in the ways that you describe, should we support a service that takes content from students, profits from that work, and gives the students nothing in return? My gut feeling is, no, we shouldn't, but given that you have more experience with the company and the service than I do, I'd love to hear your perspective.

  2. I understand that point. There are a lot of services that profit from student work: learning management systems, online word processors like Google Docs, and of course schools! But software and technology alone can't degrade a student-teacher relationship; relying on technology alone to teach does. That is as bad as thinking that a textbook is a class (or even curriculum). I think good teachers can use technology in effective ways and bad teachers generally can't. I would also question the point in your argument that says "...and gives the students nothing in return." One way to use the software is to have the students use the reports it generates to check their citations.

    Thanks again for your comment: I will continue to think about that point about corporations profiting from student work.

  3. I agree with Bill.

    You list ways to teach in your post, and using plagiarism tools like Turnitin are antithetical to what you are preaching.

    Too bad, students are getting introduced to Turnitin in high school and middle school now. What does that say about our pedagogy? What does it say about the corporate world infringing on education and making money off of students?

  4. Judy,

    Yes, I said in my post that I have mixed feelings about it. I believe that if you use the methods I am talking about in the post, then plagiarism is not that much of an issue. There are a lot of reasons why teachers won't take the time to teach that way - there are a lot of different teaching styles - and technology tools can help those teachers. I rarely post about corporate products on this blog - I find the textbook industry a lot more troubling than TurnItIn or even learning management systems.

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I feel like the jury is still out on a lot of these issues and it is only by talking about them publicly will we sort it out.


  5. Thank you for your reply, Geoff. Here are some additions to my original reply:

    I have had discussions with faculty at my institution and others, and until they rethink their curriculum, instructional techniques, and so forth, they will continue to believe that is of value. On the other hand, what does it say to students if we think learning is about detecting plagiarism? Where are our priorities? All the money spent to implement would be better spent on professional development focused on assignment design, teaching strategies, and so forth. Furthermore, it is not that difficult to discern when a student has copied a passage. Most students if alerted during the writing process will be happy to learn and make the changes. However, if caught afterwards through a policing site, what are we telling our students about our teaching and their learning? Also, part of the problem is assigning the classic research paper in large classes or online classes. This approach does not necessarily equip many students with a strong education, solid critical thinking skills, and a love of learning.