Friday, July 09, 2010


Busting Perps

I have to admit enjoying this article a little too much.

Anyone who did time with Foucault will immediately think ‘panopticon’ when reading this piece about the anti-cheating technologies at the University of Central Florida. But I remember vividly the frustration as a teacher when students would cheat, and I remember the palpable sense of relief among the better students when I interrupted a cheat in progress.

At least for me, student cheating was a serious morale issue. It made me feel foolish for having poured so much energy into teaching when the students couldn’t even be bothered to try to learn. And I had good students tell me that faculty indifference to obvious cheating bugged them, because it made them feel like dupes for actually doing the work. When the ones who follow the rules feel like suckers, something is fundamentally wrong.

I served for several years on the academic dishonesty review board, which ‘tried’ cases in which students were accused of plagiarism or other cheating. (The majority of the board was faculty, but it needed a token admin.) Based on what I saw there, I have to admit a certain impatience with the idea that Gen Y doesn’t grasp the concept of plagiarism. Granted, things sometimes got murky on ‘group assignments,’ in which one member would coast on the labor of others, but the whole “copy my paper off the internet” thing wasn’t ambiguous. In those cases, when presented with the evidence, there wasn’t really much argument either way. Nobody even tried to argue that copy-and-paste was kosher.

I’ve heard arguments to the effect that in-class tests are artificial environments and not reflective of what students will encounter in the real world. There’s some truth to that, but there’s also a basic truth to the assertion that any environment will have rules of the game. Certain rules are necessary for the integrity of the game. And showing the ability to adapt to rules and work hard seems like it should carry some weight in the real world.

Policing cheating can be a real challenge with online classes, since you don’t know who’s sitting at the keyboard. (“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”) Anecdotally, the biggest threat there is usually the spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend. But that doesn’t strike me as an argument for giving up; it strikes me as an argument for cleverness.

Call it the broken windows theory of plagiarism. If it looks like nobody else cares, then following the rules can seem like selling out. But if you see people get nailed, and the flagrant cases lead to real punishments, then following the rules looks like a better deal.

This is where the “law and order” part of my “law and order liberalism” comes through. I define “law and order liberalism” as the simultaneous belief that laws should be both fair and enforced. Banning copy-and-paste papers strikes me as utterly fair, and therefore enforceable without apology. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.

So bravo, UCF! May you make “just doing the work” the easy way out.

Thanks for the pointer. I'll return the favor by telling you that Strayer Education's head was on CNBC this morning and got quite a grilling by one of the hosts. Video should be on their web site later today. I'll admit that I take your "ed bubble" argument a lot more seriously after looking at their financial performance info on line, which shows a tripling of enrollment and quintupling of revenue in just 8 years.

Those pens that record audio in class and sync it to what you write in a notebook are really interesting, but I didn't think about cameras. One of the new tools is, of course, using Google on your phone during a test. "All hands on deck (desk)" is one way to monitor this, since most students have both hands on the desk when writing.

I remain surprised that testing centers (including ours) don't use a bus locker system to totally ban any phones or pagers from the room.

PS - You didn't credit The New Yorker (cartoons) for that dog on the internet line.
Nobody even tried to argue that copy-and-paste was kosher.

Really? I've had kids' parents argue that, successfully.

(OK, admin let the kids rewrite the copied bits into their own words, but that was mere paraphrasing. And any bits I couldn't prove were copied stood as their own work, even when the style and diction were totally different.)
My two favorite explanations from students confronted with proof they had copied a paper from the web:

1) Oh my God! How did that website get my paper?

2) Ok, but I'm not the one who cheated. The guy I bought the paper from must have done it!

The only methods I've been able to use to prevent cheating are to enforce an absolute cell phone/iPod ban in the classroom (turned off, out of sight, no earplugs), and to spotcheck with Google every paper I receive. I catch many, but I'm sure not all, of the lazier brand of plagiarists.

When I find a plagiarized paper, the student accepts an F for that assignment but must re-do it adequately or will fail the course too. I have used this punishment many times but have never had a student complain: they absolutely know that cut-and-paste is cheating, and they accept their punishment and/or drop the course.
Kids these days. In my day, you'd go to the library, find a book on your topic, find a section that roughly hit your assignment, verify that the text of the book wasn't "out there" by spot-checking a sentence, then rewrite the section in question, phrasing things differently and omitting sections that were too academic, frequently even borrowing the works cited (but not citing the book itself, of course!). Then, you'd turn it in secure in the knowledge that nobody would ask any questions and, if they did, you'd have plausible deniability (obviously, at no point would you check out the book you 'referenced'). That students can't be bothered to undertake this relatively simple process really disappoints me.
I recently found myself wishing that it was only the students who were plagiarizing. While writing a review paper I found papers (by a tenured professor at a different school) containing sections lifted from the introduction and literature search sections of a paper and proposal I wrote (incidentally both were declined). One of the papers included text identical to a thesis abstract from a different dept in the same university. I haven't yet decided how to act on this information.

Chosen Folks - I may adapt your approach for my next syllabus. Would you like a citation?
HS lab,
No citation necessary -- hope it works for you.
The shorter term for your "law and order liberalism" is "conservatism." We welcome you.
I have students in my college level physics courses using downloaded solution manuals to find their way through the homework sets. They claim that since this information is available to everyone that the use of another's solutions it is not cheating. Is this pracice common with anyone else out there? I am the online full time instructor in my area at my school.
HS Lab Partner of DD:
If that professor has a research contract with a federal funding agency, there is a formal process for filing the sort of cheating you have discovered.

I always assume that students have access to those sorts of tools, among others (sites that provide answers to on-line HW problems such as were mentioned in the NY Times article). That is one of the reasons (the other being that they also copy from each other) that collecting homework for a grade is pointless. The easiest solution is to write exams that they will fail if they don't know how to solve the problem on their own.
I don't go out of my way to catch plagiarists. They make it so easy that I barely have to try.
I tell everyone repeatedly not to copy and paste from websites and that I use the same Internet that they do. Yet I still get half a dozen students ignoring this advice every semester.
Once every few years, I get one who does it twice and ends up suspended for a year.
Let's face it: some of these folks just aren't very bright. It's just as well they get booted out.
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