November 2012 Archives

Essay Buyer Beware

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A few years ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a story that would scare the tweed socks off of any professor - the Shadow Scholar who writes custom essays allowing students to graduate with advanced degrees illicitly earned. The Shadow Scholar goes on to comment that HE (or SHE) is getting paid to learn about these topics in order to write these quality essays.

The scariest part of course is that if the writing is good enough, not even Turnitin could detect the cheating because it's a custom, well-written essay....or is it?

Economist Dan Ariely has an interesting article in which he test drives a few essay services and finds less than satisfying results. Consider some of the issues he finds in these essays (for which he paid over $150).

  • Non-grammatical English - as in possibly produced by a non-native speaker of English. You can see a sample quote below
  • Low quality sources in citations
  • Incorrect citation formats
  • May include plagiarized content - the kind detectable by Turnitin.

I don't mean to say that the Shadow Scholar ever produced such shoddy results. But the Shadow Scholar may be starting to charge a much higher fee after this. I also don't mean to say that faculty can breath a sigh of relief. Students are still going to do what they do, and they need to be educated otherwise.

If there is one lesson we should all learn it is this:

There is harmless healing, when healers-cheaters and wizards offer omens, lapels, damage to withdraw, the husband-wife back and stuff. ... But these days fewer people believe in wizards.

—Anonymous (2012)

"But I don't want deep learning"

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An important tenet of constructivism is how important it is to build your own meaning by analyzing, discussing and reviewing data and issues from multiple perspectives. It is the path to the highest enlightenment in any topic.

But what do instructional designers do? Distill important pedagogical topics and technology down to a simple list of tips for our client faculty. It's far from being constructivist and can lead to some misconceptions. But it's what our customers want. Not so different from undergraduate students.

Before we hang our heads in shame though, consider the factors of time and motivation. Deep learning is going take longer than the checklist un-deep learning, and there isn't always a visible payoff. And if there isn't a visible payoff, then you need to be interest....really, really interested.

Want to learn spelling?

So consider a topic everyone loves - the spelling rules of English. Traditionally this is taught as memorizing complicated lists or rules and vocabulary lists.

Were you bored? I know I was. Were you confused? You should be. Even after getting multiple degrees in linguist, there are words that I have trouble spelling.

It turns out that there is another way to learn spelling - learn how to spell other languages particularly Latin, French, Greek, Italian and German. But adding Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Sanskrit, Arabic and a variety of African languages is also useful. For place names you should also add Dutch, Welsh, Irish and some native American languages.

Once I learned the spelling rules of these languages, my spelling improved considerably. That's because English adopts words with foreign spellings (vs. sensible languages like Welsh which change spelling to fit its phonetic spelling system).

How long did this take? At least four years to get all the Latin, French and Spanish in. After that each language is a lot quicker (about one semester max). In addition to improving my spelling, learning other languages (even a little bit) has been great for helping me understand history, the news, cooking, music theory and art. That actually IS a visible payoff.

And yet, I hear all the time how hard a foreign language is. ¿Quién quiere «deep learning» ahora? It's all so sad.

Be interested

You know, I didn't know I was going to have any words of wisdom until I started pulling this blog entry together, but through the power of metacognition, I have some to deliver. One is to learn to be interested.

Once upon a time, there were topics I found boring and incomprehensible...until I started learning more. They included spelling, accessibility, copyright law, economics, thermodynamics, nutrition, Egyptian mummies, Stonehenge, bees and many more. But as I read more, I realized they were interesting. Strange but true.

There are topics I still find "boring", but it's because I've been too lazy to investigate. Or I need to get some sleep.

Be interesting

From the the instructional side, I think the lesson is to be interesting. Most of us already know this, but it's important to remind ourselves of this from time to time. Anytime we dismiss our courses in accounting, statistics, or whatnot as "boring", we've lost our battle.

One corollary of this is that our instructors should be INTERESTED. Drafting instructors to teach something they are not currently passionate in leads to a lot of wasted time. Do they always have time to catch up before the students? Do they want to? Do you?

But the biggest question of all - do our students have the time? They should of course, but when I consider how many times I am asked to distill a complicated subject to a three-bullet point list, I can't blame them for acting just like busy adults. Monkey see, monkey do is still a valid learning pattern.

Sometimes, the checklist is the best we can do.