March 2011 Archives

New Thoughts on Plagiarism

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Last week, I went to Schreyer's session on academic honesty and although I have been to a lot of plagiarism talks, I really got some good insights out of this.

Plagiarism Varies by Context. What's Yours?

We all know plagiarism when we see it, but a checklist from Faculty Perceptions of Plagiarism by Jean Liddell and Valerie Fong (2005) reminded me that definitions vary widely.


Should all student work be "original"? It depends on the assignment. A creative writing assignment should always be original, but how about a paper for Intro to Egyptian Archaeology? Unless the class attends a dig, students will have to rely exclusively on secondary sources and quotes. If a professor is lucky, a student may come up with an original comparative twist, but how likely is that? Of course, it is this unoriginality that allows paper mills to thrive.

Another twist is that some cultures feel that originality belongs only the "masters." Apprentices and students may be more expected to copy from the master first before embarking on an original work (I'm sure I heard that somewhere). That's actually how many crafts work - crafters copy other's designs, partly to learn new techniques, then may begin original designs after learning basic skills. The same may be true for quotes - is it better to rewrite another's thoughts? In my world, yes (because it's good writing practice), but others could consider that destroying a well-crafted thought.

Common Knowledge

Another parameter is defining common knowledge. Is it whatever appears on Wikipedia? Any factoid said by an instructor? Or, as some students claimed, the same fact in three sources? The answer is probably not, but how can students tell without a little instruction?

One of the benefits of learning academic writing is learning to track the trail of "everybody knows X" to its source. How do we know when someone was born? It's not from a Wikipedia article or even the biography quoted in Wikipedia, but likely from some document from that era (birth certificate, church records, family history, etc). Understanding our sources of knowledge is an important analytic skill.

But...out in everyday life, we rarely "cite" our information. How many course slides and best practice handouts have you seen listing facts without a bibliography? Do consumers care? Not if they're trying to fix something or pass a course. No wonder students think whatever they hear in class is "common knowledge".

The Collaboration Trap

I hate to be cynical, but if you really want to see plagiarism in action, just encourage students to work together. When done poorly, one student gives the answer to another. I often figure this out because either 1) the copier misunderstands the information and doesn't convey it quite right or 2) the "team" doesn't spot the errors, but instead replicates it across multiple assignments. Sigh.

For the record, I don't forbid collaboration because I don't want the study groups to break up. I merely require that students use their own words so that they at least "process" the information. But I am struck at how successful the academic loners remain in many contexts. No cheating and better formulated material in many cases. We all have to learn teamwork at some point, but I still think it needs careful thought.

Is Plagiarism de rigeur now?

Perhaps the most revolutionary thought is that students are being trained to think that academic dishonesty is part of the natural order. First, Engler, Landau and Epstein (Keeping up with the Jones (2008) note that students overestimate the rate of cheating. They also cite research that students who believe cheating is prevelant are more likely to cheat themselves.

Even more alarming is a thought from a sociology professor who asks if all our instructor warnings set up a self-fulfilling prophecy. In many ways, our culture considers instructors and students to be adversaries, and a student who cheats and gets away with it definitely scores a victory. As might be expected, I have heard that students who feel more connected to their instructor may be less likely to cheat, but it probably doesn't replace an instructor providing plagiarism guidance.

Change it up!

The above are all good reminders as I enter final project season, but it's also important to vary assignments. In fact, I like to avoid traditional research paper assignments as much as possible - who needs another rehash of a topic we all know already?

There are lots of ideas out there for original assignments, but one I like is a class project to build a wiki around one book for a literature class (or a wiki around a specific topic in another class). It's a good team project in which each student's contribution can be clearly seen, and hopefully you can switch books/topics between semesters. Another is to meet with students to develop a project idea (preferably one that is interesting and doable). Students who are interested in the topic are more likely to do more work for it. This is also a stage where you can set expectations so students don't panic at the last minute. Finally, I think making a lit review a more overt assignment is interesting - that is what most beginning academic "papers" really are, and hopefully the lit changes often enough that the paper mills can't quite keep with it.


I've had some experiences in past semesters which have made me very cynical about plagiarism, but I'm hoping that this discussion will help me guide students towards being better researchers. We'll see.

You may have seen this news already from my Twitter feed or the TWT Hub, but I am very excited that three TWT Certificate recipients were also awarded one of ten 2011 Harold F. Martin Graduate Assistant Outstanding Teaching Awards.

We can't know what the TWT process contributed, but the nomnimations do mention the use of technology for one instructor David Agler (Philosophy):

Using technology in innovative ways in his classes, Agler has established a professional website to post not just lecture notes and the course syllabus, but also digital tutorials that he designed for students at their request. He also uses blogs for students to post ideas and reactions to the material, allowing him to cultivate philosophical conversation that filters back into the classroom in positive ways. "These innovations," a nominator said, "enhance the ways in which students can plug in and take ownership of the class."

This is exactly the reason why instructional designers get excited by technology - because of it's ability to improve teaching.

I also want to recognize Rachel Mennies (English) and Jason L. Weigle (Rural Sociology) who also won Martin Awards. Their use of technology was not mentioned, but their commitment to their students was cited, and that commitment is also a part of what makes a great portfolio as well.

Puzzle Theory

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Last week at the Gaming Brownbag, I gave a PuzzleTheory.pptx for education (a completely made up name) which is an exploration of how the principles of entertainment puzzles (Sudoku, solitaire, word games, math and logic games, etc) can be implemented in different courses, specifically those which assign lots of "problem sets" as homework.

I got interested in puzzles partly because I like them, but also because they structurally overlap with exercises I give out as homework, yet are actually considered fun. A question I have is what are the makers of Soduko and online solitaire doing that we're not to make these addictive.

Puzzles/Problem Sets vs. Design vs. Games

When considering learning objectives, it's important to consider the properties of entertainment puzzles versus a game or a "design". Puzzles are game-like in that there are formal rules, but different in that there is generally a limited solution set (sometimes just one). Also, games have competitors and generally have a winner, but a puzzle can be a solo activity.

Another distinction is design versus puzzles. There are lots of open-ended problems which can be solved with any number of creative solutions from architectural problems (environmentally friendly yet tasteful) to social engineering (getting people to eat vegetables) to optimization. You can (and should) build learning activities around these design issues, but I also think that puzzles with limited solutions are also valid.

Puzzles in Real Life

There are actually lots of puzzles in real life with few solutions....but it's not the case that we can find an answer (yet). Some recent examples

  • What do those weird Egyptian heiroglyphic symbols mean? (solved!)
  • Which crazy Unicode font is making Elizabeth's Photoshop crash? (unsolved)
  • Why does the patient sufffer back pain?
  • How many people are employeed by Penn State in each county?
  • Where do you plug things in to set up Adobe Connect audio?
  • Which route to a particular Washington DC suburb is the fastest?

Entertainment Puzzles vs. Problem Sets

In the discussion we had, we compared puzzles vs. problem sets. One issue we discussed was whether "bells and whistles" would add to the experience. Online puzzles generally have interesting graphics/sound effects (e.g. Mahjong for iPad) not found in problem sets.

Another feature of both modern puzzles and games is a wacky sense of humor. Each round of the iPad game Angry Birds presents the ballistic challenge of efficiently destroying a structure with a missile - yet few engineering classes will ask you how to launch an avian projectile to destroy building built by villainous pork.

A third issue was context - why should students care about the problem? In engineering, solving a problem correctly could prevent a major disaster. In linguistics or foreign language, it might mean being able to buy some groceries. Yet most problem sets present exercises out of context. It can be hard to write good word problems, but maybe we need some humor too!

Finally, a lesson I have to keep re-learning is to NOT make your problem sets too difficult. Addictive puzzles are those which are tricky, but not impossible to solve. A successful series of puzzles can you ramp you up from simple to easy so that you learn the easy puzzles quickly, then work your way towards more challenging puzzles. But once a puzzle becomes too hard, players quit.

As a general note, a puzzle that is fun or challenging for an instructor will likely be too hard for students, especially in intro courses. The students will probably be more frustrated by a challenge rather than being inspired by it (unless they happen to "get it").

Learning Through Failure

I think the most important insight I had was that part of solving a puzzle is going through a series of repeated failures until you get it right. That is, puzzles are somewhat low-stakes where you are rewarded more making an effort rather than perfection. Problem sets, on the other hand...generally high stakes.

Entertainment Puzzles Problem Sets
  • Fun!
  • Can reset/do over
  • Can look at answer key/cheat code
  • Can ask for help
  • OK to fail multiple timnes before solving
  • Not Fun ;(
  • No do over
  • No answer key (until grading)
  • No outside help
  • Turn in once and hope for the best

This does make me think about how traditional education works. In the worst case scenario, we may show simple problems, but then assign students for homework (or show hard problems in class then assign very easy problems in homework to bewildered students).

What we rarely do is ask students to re-do a problem again so that they can learn from it. We just hope our answer key is clear enough for them to understand what went wrong. Nor do we ask students to work through a simple problem on their own, which could allow students to figure out the strategies. It is no wonder that they are passively waiting for us to tell them what to do - it's how instructors roll.

I know I am re-inventing problem based learning (PBL), but puzzles are a way to show how it can work successfully, when you start tossing birds at pigs.

NFB Targets Google Apps and Northwestern: Time for a Plan B

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In addition to Penn State, the NFB (National Federation of the Blind) is requesting an investigation of Northwestern and NYU (New York University), because they have adopted Google Apps (incl e-mail and Google Docs) and Google Docs is not accessible to screen readers.

The good news for Penn State is that we have NOT adopted Google Apps as an official tool. However it is still worth considering the implications of recommending any technology. For the record, I think Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets are great collaborative tools and I don't want to deny access to those who it can help, but I can't ignore the face that there are accessibility issues.

On the other hand...Google Docs is not the only option out there. Spokespeople for the NFB have recommended Windows Live, but even if you're not a Windows Live fan, there are plenty of other options including:

  • Sharing actual Word files
  • Accessible blogs and discussion boards

To me, the point isn't to ban tools, but to utilize a wide set of tools for a given function and not lock users into one platform. This takes some planning and a little bit of research, but as I'm learning from my students, they often have great tricks for using technology, so why not pick their brains?

(Although I would add that your alternates should be good alternates. A recent note from the Office of Civil Rights regarding the use of electronic book readers)

A college or university may provide an individual with a disability, or a class of individuals with disabilities, with a different or separate aid, benefit, or service only if doing so is necessary to ensure that the aid, benefit, or service is as effective as that provided to others.

Final Notes

Here at ETS, when we investigate new technologies, we have a special responsibility to review tools for accessibility early in the process. To quote again the Office of Civil Rights

It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students.

WEB AIM Survery of Screen Reader Users

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The latest survey of screen reader preferences came out from Web AIM recently. It appears that most of the respondents were very tech savvy, which is not the case for all users of screen readers, but it does provide some glimpses for best practices.

Some trends that jumped out at me were:

  • 98.4% of users had JavaScript enabled. The changes the problem from avoiding scripting to using it correctly.
  • JAWS still has a significant market share, but other screen readers are catching up. I am hoping that this will help developers code for standards and not just standards + JAWS.
  • The majority of the screen reader population (65.2%) is on some version of Internet Explorer ranging from version 9 to (ugh) version 6. If a product isn't quite working on IE, then this community will notice. The good news for the Mac crowd is that IE dominance is dropping in this community also, but more gradually.
  • Many users do use the longdesc feature when it's available, but there's mixed results on how effective is.
  • Most users (57.2%) also use headings to find information as opposed to a Search function or skip links.

One good trend I did notice is that the use of "screenreader-only" features such as the skip links, access keys and others is dropping and being replaced by mechanisms based on the code for the visual page. The reason I think this is good trend is that adding code which can only accessed by a screen reader is trickier to debug and benefits a much smaller audience.

Something like good use of headings has added benefits for search engine optimization and usability in addition to the benefits for those on a screen reader. The support already exists and only needs minor tweaks to adjust (and Web developers are also more likely to "get" something they can see - just human nature).

TWT Presentation for Comp Lit

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Pie Chart Accessibility

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Like pie charts but worry about screen reader accessibility? There is a simple workaround - provide both the chart and the numeric in text form. The latest survey results of screen reader usage from Web AIM provides a great example of chart and graph accessibility.

While a pie chart (embedded in an image) is provided for each result, the table with the data is shown immediately below. The ALT tag used simply indicates the chart being shown (e.g. alt="Chart showing mobile screen readers used"), but the actual numbers can be seen in the table beneath the image. Not only does this method avoid adding a lengthy image description, but provides numeric data to low-vision users and simplifies the presentation of the pie chart (no tiny numbers needed in the image).

Another good lesson from these pie charts is that they are usable for users with color deficient vision because they rely on values of lightness and darkness. They are still colorful, but each slice color is differentiated by lightness/darkness not color (i.e. hue).

Student Deadline Disconnect

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This semester, I've been assigning students in my tech course different types of technology tasks as homework. Some they have found success with, some not so much. How do I know? By the homework that comes in on time...or not. This is typical of a lot of classes, but I realized that there is a disconnect between what happens in a classroom and what we want to happen in real life.

In real life, what a project manager wants is to know ahead of a deadline if a potential problem has occurred. They generally don't want to get to the deadline and find...nothing. That's considered poor project management.

It's also considered bad teaching by many to have a lot of students fail to submit an assignment due to unforseen technical issues. Yet, this is is typical of what happens in a lot of cases. Although longer assignments (e.g. video assignments, team projects) might have timelines built in, the result is often student who miss intermediate deadlines.

Again...why don't students tell us ahead of time they might be having problems? It's partly procrastination on student's part, but I also think there is a culture of distrust between students and teachers. That is, we expect students to flake out, and they tend to do that.

I told my students that in the "real world" of employment, the responsible thing would be to tell colleagues/bosses if a problem was found. So I said again to tell me when things go wrong. But I also tried NOT to scold them, because as a wise friend of my mother once said, "If you yell at them, they won't tell you anything again."

Which gets me to an article Stevie Rocco found about toxic management beliefs. I don't buy all of them, but I do think the one that's relevant is treating employees and adult students like, well school children.It's good to provide leadership, but also true that when adults are treated like children, it can set up dysfunctional parent-teenager relationships at work.

There's a lot of discussion about helping students take ownership of their learning and employees self organizing, but the traditional school/management climate really does its best to undermine it. I don't have any ready answers for either situation, but this experience has given me food for thought on what I need to do to change my management climate.

Oregon Trail on the iPad

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One of the games I purchased for the iPad was Oregon Trail, a historical adventure game based on traveling west on the Oregon Trail. I was intrigued by this game because this is one of the few games based on an educational concept that was actually considered fun outside the classroom.

Game Play

For those who haven't played Oregon Trail before, the game is built around a quest to move your family West on the Oregon Trail before time and supplies run out and with as many survivors as possible.

You begin in Missouri with a wagon and some options to gear up your wagon and stock it with food, guns, bullets and clothing. You then head to different points on the trail. On the trail (at least in the iPhone version), you are given different challenges in terms of navigating barriers (e.g. rivers) and hunting food on the trail (this will be VERY important as it turns out). You also have to navigate different weather and hope no one gets sick or injured (beware the giant eagle). If that happens you have to choose whether to spend time healing, spend money on medicines or use some other supplies.

As with other adventures, you learn to juggle resources which is what the actual pioneers did. You also encounter historical figures (and even run optional errands for them such as delivering letters to the next town). This game effectively teaches you the hazards of the West and the benefits of cooperation as well as a good aim.

Design Lessons

What design lessons can instructional designers learn? I think most would agree that the lesson can be summed up as making sure a game "doesn't shove educational crap down your throat." BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

First, the game mood is a little on the silly side. The graphics were originally primitive, but even once better technology was available, the characters and setting were definitely cartoonish (I always loved Ma's giant bonnet and Pa's bushy mustache). Death is a common occurrence in this game, but is treated humorously. In many versions, kids get to write their own tombstones before getting back on the wagon.

The second part of the "no educational crap" is that there extended text explaining the hazards of the trail. You get the dysentery, then you decide how to handle it. The same is true for broken axles, sick oxen or low food supplies. It IS learning by doing. On a side note, the hazards are not rigorously described. It's not important to know the symptoms of dysentary to appreciate that someone is sick. Similarly, we don't need to know exactly which tribe we're encountering to appreciate the benefits of being nice to the local population. This means (sniff) eliminating real historical. I admit that this is a challenge for me, but it is just a game....

A third lesson is that the game is embedded in a personalized narrative because the game lets you experience the trail for yourself. Also, it's kind of a challenge. I was able to navigate most of the challenges, but that eagle is literally a killer. How to handle that sucker? Replay or cheat code seems to be the answer.

A final lesson to consider is that the game fits the learning objectives. The game does not really teach facts about the trail (e.g. specific locations, people, etc). You may learn some of this by playing frequently, but it's not critical information. The actual objectives are to understand the challenges of navigating the trail, and the game does this very well. In other words, I am thinking games are generally more about learning skills rather than facts.

Some Caveats

A discussion that comes up in educational gaming is how much gaming can replace traditional education. I would definitely agree that a well-constructed game can teach things that a lecture cannot.

But I also feel that if a game is used in the classroom, then there should be a debriefing session. Many times lessons are so well learned, that students don't even realize what they've learned until they reflect upon it.

Another concept I struggle with is how to incorporate a game with the "facts" valued by traditional education. One school of thought is to forget facts and focus on higher order knowledge, but I think that's too simplistic. Analysis often relies on someone recalling the right facts (in fact I always felt that Batman is probably a Trivia Pursuit whiz in disguise).

Games traditionally present this information needed as tutorials and references or in the framework of the plot, and I think that would work here too. But I do think it's important to remember that some of this verbal knowledge should have a place in a course, even if it's not as large as it traditionally has been.