Deterrents don’t deter?

A recent article in THES reports on research by Robert J. Youmans at California State University Northridge that found that

Students who are aware that their work will be checked by plagiarism-detection software are just as likely to cheat as those who are not.

Conventional wisdom – and intuition – suggests that the threat of discovery, and subsequent punishment, is an effective deterrent against plagiarism – indeed, one of the comments on the article points to another study that suggested that students’ awareness of the use of Turnitin on a course significantly reduced plagiarism.

It’s not always clear whether plagiarism is an intentional and cynical attempt to deceive, the result of bad time management and poor writing or referencing skills, or due to genuine lack of understanding of the concept of plagiarism or differing cultural norms around it.  The first category of student is the category most likely to resort to essay mills as a safer alternative where it’s made clear that plagiarism detection is in use, which suggests that the majority of students ‘caught’ by Turnitin and other text matching techniques when their use is advertised as a supposed deterrent are those whose main problem is not a desire to cheat but academic or personal factors.

Findings like this seem to strengthen the arguments in favour of using Turnitin formatively, as part of a student’s academic development and the essay writing process, rather than as a way of detecting problems once it’s too late to do anything about them and the student has entered the disciplinary process.  The use of plagiarism detection only after submission seems to be based on the assumption that plagiarism only occurs through a deliberate desire to cheat, and as I’ve argued before, positions all students as potential cheats rather than as developing academics who may be in need of guidance and support to achieve their potential.

Evaluating the Benefits of Electronic Assessment Management

Examining the embedding of electronic assessment management (EAM) within both administrative and teaching and learning practice is the main focus of the Evaluating the Benefits of Electronic Assessment Management (EBEAM) project running at the University of Huddersfield as part of the JISC Assessment and Feedback programme Strand B.  This 18 month project will look at how Turnitin, incorporating GradeMark and eRater, addresses student, staff and institutional requirements for timely, invidiualised and focused feedback, reduced staff workloads and increasing reflection on practice, and cost-effective, scaleable and sustainable innovation.

The dual focus on administrative and pedagogic aspects is crucial for real uptake of any new technology or process.  By providing a supportive administrative and technological infrastructure, institutions can enable academic staff to fully realise the benefits of innovative systems and practice, and provide a significantly enhanced learning environment for students.  The dynamic interplay of these factors is vividly illustrated in the poster the project submitted for the programme kick off meeting.  The impact on student satisfaction, achievement and retention rates already apparent at Huddersfield reflects the success of such an approach.

Like the Evaluation of Assessment Diaries and GradeMark at the University of Glamorgan project, EBEAM is grounded in previous evaluation work investigating the benefits of Turnitin on staff and students.  As with other projects, the decision to adopt existing technologies incorporated through the institutional VLE (in this case, Blackboard) is a pragmatic choice, adopting known and proven technology rather than expending time and resources in developing yet more tools to do the same things.  Being able to pick up such tools as needed greatly increases institutional agility, and provides ready access to existing user groups and a wealth of shared practice.

EBEAM project staff also have a keen awareness of the need for meaningful and effective staff development to enable teaching staff to make full use of new technologies and achieve the integration of new approaches within their teaching practice, a theme covered in several posts on their excellent project blog.  The project will produce a wide range of development materials, including practically-focused toolkits, webinars and screencasts, which will be available through the project site and the JISC Design Studio.  In addition, they’re looking at ways of fully exploiting the extensive amount of data generated by these EAM systems to further enhance teaching and learning support as well as engaging administrative departments in discussions on topics such as data warehousing and change management.

The EBEAM project should provide an excellent study in the benefits of eassessment and of methods of integration that take a holistic approach to institutions and stakeholders.  I’m very much looking forward to seeing the outcomes of their work.

Fighting cheating, one baseball cap at a time

A fascinating article in the New York Times looks at some of the more unusual measures taken to fight cheating at the University of Central Florida and other US institutions.  Approaches range from the unremarkable (Turnitin) to the ‘I would never have thought of that in a million years’, such as banning baseball caps from being worn the right way round in case answers were written on the underside of the brim.  Firmly technological approaches include overhead cameras which record any ‘suspicious’ behaviour by a student at the same time as recording what is happening on their computer for later investigation.

Such a paranoid approach to student integrity, although apparently very successful, does start from the assumption that all students are out to cheat, an attitude that both students and institutions can find unacceptable, and the article cites one institution that felt the use of Turnitin was inconsistent with their own policies and  honour code.

As anyone who’s ever marked written work will know, there are grades of cheating and of plagiarism, and much  of what is identified as plagiarism is not an intentional attempt at cheating but often the result of weak academic or communication skills, or bad time management and study practices.  It’s very encouraging to see that educating students about what constitutes plagiarism can have a substantial impact on rates of plagiarism – not all those who ‘cheat’ are actually setting out to do so.  As for those who are: some of the examples here will certainly astonish…

Turnitin win copyright decision in US

A group of students have finally lost their case against plagiarism detection service Turnitin with the judgement that Turnitin does not breach students’ copyright by retaining copies of submitted essays.  In particular, The Chronicle reports that

the district-court judge said Turnitin’s actions fell under fair use, ruling that the company ‘makes no use of any work’s particular expressive or creative content beyond the limited use of comparison with other works.’  He also said the new use ‘provides a substantial public benefit.’

While the reasoning is clear, I have always felt a bit uncomfortable about the tension between the undoubted benefits to be gained from Turnitin and the fact that, as a commercial company, Turnitin’s parent company iParadigms is undeniably profiting, albeit indirectly, from other people’s intellectual property.  However, institutions frequently claim IPR rights to their students’ work, and understandably see considerable benefits from requiring the submission of essays to Turnitin.

Plagiarism is undoubtedly a serious issue facing HE, but I think my biggest issue with this is the way in which so many institutions choose to use Turnitin exclusively as a tool to detect and evidence plagiarism.  There is an assumpation inherent in this approach that all students may attempt to cheat.  Retaining papers once they’ve been checked for plagiarism for adding to the database also suggests an assumption that students cannot be trusted not to pass their work on to others.

Other institutions take a more collaborative approach, allowing students to submit their work multiple times to Turnitin and using it as a teaching aid to help students avoid indirect plagiarism and learn how to better develop their essay writing and argumentation skills and understand their relationship to their research sources.  In this approach, all students receive a direct benefit from the software, profiting significantly as learners and writers, and those who may be tempted to intentionally plagiarise may look for other ways to cheat instead.