August 2008 Archives

Living with Plagiarism

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As I have been reminding people recently I both maintain a plagiarism Web site and teach the occasional linguistics course. This is one of those times I'm glad to see an issue like plagiarism from multiple points of view.

Interestingly after teaching a few times, I have decided that the real solution isn't last-minute comparisons, but frequent interaction. So my tips, such as they are, include

  1. Frequent assignments - It is true that the more you see a student's work, the more likely you will spot an anomoly. In fact, blogging is one of the better tools because students really write in their own voices, and instructors see them, but may not have to grade the content in too much detail.

    I know this assumes a reasonably low student:faculty ratio which does not always happen here. Even so, I have been in a class of 50+ where plagiarism was detected - Overworked TAs can smell a rat even in a large data set.

  2. The early scare - Like John Harwood and others, I include a statement in the syllabus discuss the issue in the first day of class. The ultimate weapon of course is "I maintain the plagiarism site."

  3. Laying out collaboration rules - The great thing about collaboration is that students can learn from each other, but the bad thing is that they can get lazy also. My own personal rule has been "use your own words" (so that each student has to process some information). If nothing else, I learn who is studying together up front...in case anything weird happens later.

I think the ultimate lesson for me though is that plagiarism really may not pay for the student, even in the short term.

For instance, I questioned a student about copying a transcription from second student, but even if I hadn't caught it, that person would have scored worse...because the two dialects did not mesh. The original transcription was correct for the original speaker's dialect, but wrong for the other person. I knew that the student with the suspicious case totally missed the concept.

Another interesting case was a paper in which significant portions were cut and pasted from another source; I scored it as "missing quotations" since the reference was in the bibliography. Even if I had missed that one though - the paper would have scored low because the source materials were not meshed in well and was ultimately not very comprehensible.

I suspect I have been hosed a few times (for instance, there will be no more bathroom breaks for in-class exams), but overall I feel that I can worry less, because the results of plagiarism are amazingly shoddy in many cases.

Course Hero - The Study Site that's a Pyramid Scheme?

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The original discovery of this little gem goes to one of my Harrisburg colleagues who learned about it from an instructor. The site in question is Course Hero or "An Open Online Study Community", but note how the home page features quizzes, exam solutions and homework answers along with some actual lecture notes. Yes, I am a little paranoid especially since I have seen many suspicious study aids over the years.

But, since this was a new model, I thought I should investigate. First, I was interested to see that you can use your Facebook account to log in - I knew there was a reason to sign up. Once you log in, you can create a study profile identifying course number and instructor (presumably to find other online study mates). You can also enter in textbook information by ISBN-13 number (always get a textbook for class).

The interesting part happens when you click the Search button. At that point you find out that you have to "upgrade to a standard account" to view search results, and it offers several ways to do so. The first way is to upload your "study aid documents first" (5 for 1 month's access, 50 for unlimited access); the second is to invite your Facebook or AIM buddies (50 friends for one month or 200 friends for one year); or thirdly you could pay a monthly fee. And this is where I feel that "pyramid scheme" applies, because to avoid paying a fee you have to contribute resources (content or people), but if your friends want to avoid paying, they have to find more friends or content...or else. The only thing missing is your cut of the profits (although presumably you will have access to an ever-growing set of resources, possibly forever.

This model is interesting, and it probably works, but I would be leery of joining any service before I had gotten a chance to really look at the search results first. For one thing, I was seriously considering uploading 5 junk documents just to get an in-depth view of my hypothetical search results, and I may not be the only person with this idea. Even worse, I could have "joined" only to find that my search results were empty AFTER I uploaded/paid/sucked in friends. Seems like a real rip-off to me.

The other questionable aspect, of course, is the posting of exam and homework solutions. Hmmm. Sample tests can be helpful study tools...if the instructor chooses to post them, but since the sources on the homepage are set to "anonymous", I'm not sure the instructor is posting anything. Which is where another colleague mentioned copyright issues.

But I suspect that Course Hero is structured like YouTube in that they let users post anything they want and wait for any take-down notices to arrive at their doorstep (I'm sure it's all stated in the user agreement somewhere). In the meantime, all the solutions are available to you under a "Creative Commons" license...assuming that you ever get access to them.

Scheduling and the August Blog Project

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I'm not officially attempting the 1 blog post per day feat, but if I were, I could write up a bunch over the week-end and use the schedule feature to separate the appearance by 24 hours.

Use this to reader overload.

Elizabeth is Tweeting

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Believe it or not, Robin Smail (aka Robin2Go) finally talked me into Tweeting. Since I had written a very long blog post against Twitter I thought I should go public with this decision.

I'm also Tweeting in public, although only with my Access ID. I don't have to make the trail that easy to find although I think the community has found me already.

However I still stand by my March 2008 statement that discipline-specific support is a good idea - thankfully it is now part of the strategic plan (a happy coincidence I believe).

Overview of the Penn State Open Source License

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The Penn State Multimedia Teaching Objects are a set of objects which can be downloaded under the "Penn State Open Source License". While this license is not Creative Commons, it actually has the same terms as a liberal GNU/Creative Commons license - namely:

This MTO item can be used royalty-free under the following conditions. See the MTO Item Open Source License for complete terms.

  • The item is distributed AS IS with no implied or stated warranties.
  • The item is restricted to educational or personal use only. Commercial use is not permitted.
  • Copies may be distributed, but only for educational or personal use. This item cannot be sold for profit.
  • You have permission to modify the item, but the derivative work must remain open source and cannot be marketed for profit.
  • Copyright of the original item is held by Penn State.
  • If this item is used, attribution to Penn State is requested.

So why not just use Creative Commons? Because when this project was developed several years ago, Creative Commons was not what it is now. At the time we were investigating this, the closest Creative License version I could create was a Canadian one. If, for some reason, someone had borrowed a file and made a billion dollars, it looked like Penn State would have had to file a law suit in Canada.

Looking at the site again, I do think there might be more merit to the actual license...but I don't regret asking qualified attorneys to review the issue. That's why we consult content experts!

Update on Aug 14

I just read in this New Media & Technology Law Blog (found via a Listserv) that a Federal Circuit court says open source licenses are legally enforceable in the U.S. As I interpret it, it means that if you use an open source license, and someone violates it you can sue in court, even if there are no monetary damages per se. I would presume that this is good news for the Creative Commons effort.

LDSC08 - I do like Live Question

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I anticipate a quiet Web 2.0 period on this topic, but I did like the Live Question tool from the Harvard Law server. It lets a large class send questions with minimal interruption, and the voting lets other students participate even if the coffee hasn't quite kicked in yet.

This is a good case for letting everyone have their laptops open in class.

Text is Cheap (and sometimes that's good).

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I'm working on posting a media-rich for the fall (images, video and text), and I really have a new appreciation for the cheapness of text. What do I mean exactly?

  • Text files are much smaller than media files
  • Software to edit text files is cheaper
  • Far more people (e.g. instructors) can edit text than edit videos/images
  • It takes much less time to edit text for the Web than videos/images
  • Less time for accessibility is needed because text is almost accessible by default (it's those pesky fonts and colors that cause problems)

A text-only document is almost always easier to deal with.

So why do I bother with video and images? Because they really CAN convey information in a way that text alone cannot. Even the thermodynamics instructor I worked with commented that she couldn't remember how she got through the old thermodynamics books without the "modern" graphs that apparently "only" the Net Gen audience find so useful.

But it's an expensive proposition. That's why crabby instructional designers sometimes ask if the budget is there for that particular graphic – each one takes a lot of time and energy, usually from a rare, skilled specialist. We want to be sure the effort is worth it, and when it is, it's magic!

P.S. 1 – One thing I like about the Digital Commons is that they are geared towards teaching everyone key video skills. But I bet people quickly find out many hours are required – I think most enjoy it though.

P.S. 2 – Borrowing Creative Commons licensed media is great too...when you can find the right file. In one course lesson, I've only been able to borrow directly 3 times, modify 4 times and the rest (25+) had to be created from scratch.