Thursday, May 28, 2009

End online plagiarism with dialogue (it's free!)

Curbing student plagiarism doesn’t have to involve purchasing expensive software from companies like iParadigms that offer to detect academically suspicious writing. A simple curriculum design precludes the entire problem without having to spend money. Simply divide the writing assignment into small sequences, having students write more frequently, in shorter bursts. Pair students together and have each student respond to the other’s latest writing. Evaluation of the ensuing dialogue now focuses on the ability for students to grasp and analyze concepts in an intellectual environment that is dynamic and modal. Not only is this a pedagogically interesting exercise in itself, as it efficiently maximizes critical thinking skills, but think about how difficult it would be for a student to plagiarize or outsource this type of an exercise to an online paper mill. The millers don’t have time fabricate verisimilitude in writing assignments that are contingent upon what another mind will be saying every other day.

Plagiarism and low-integrity writing thrives in a student-controlled soliloquoy. With zero human interaction as the typical writing assignment unfolds, the plagiarist is free to concoct a hermetically sealed system of claims and counterclaims, lending the document an air of intellectual rigor. In this game students can encrypt their plagiarism strategies with varying degrees of success, the most sophisticated attempts requiring the most sophisticated software to detect.

Yet, personally, I wouldn’t spend time blaming or punishing plagiarists when there is simply so much to reform in undergraduate programs that exploiting the writing assignment as a way to contain the frightful demand that huge numbers of students pose on a limited group of university instructors. That’s right, writing assignments don’t cause the instructor more work, they create the least amount of work possible because they position and reduce the role of instruction to evaluating final products (instead of intermittent coaching + evaluation).

So often, and sadly, academia will respond by embracing an American Idol model for evaluating student performance. In it, the student is asked to present the intellectual work that is rehearsed in isolation and away from the evaluator’s eyes. In American Idol, it is only after the performance has been rehearsed to its fullest potential that the judges will observe the final product and voice their ephemeral feedback and stamp of judgment. It is the same in academia and, for lack of a better term, I call it the “product-over-process model” of academic correspondence. This model in academic evaluation conveniently eliminates the valuable, but costly moments that could be exploited between a student and a teacher as the writing assignment undergoes its formation. Also, it is a system that begs to be gamed. If teachers are going to continue to only ask for “final” and “processed” writing, then they risk being fed everything and anything. As a consequence, the liabilities and software detection bills keep piling up. Let’s face it, undergraduate academia, with its emphasis on evaluating intellectual products over processes, is guilty of embodying and propagating a system that values singular impressions instead of socratic experiences and as a consequence of that, deserves any mess that this would put them in.

Luckily, an undergraduate program that shrewdly exploits the peer-to-peer writing exercise proposed above can continue to preserve its evaluator resources in the face of large student populations and simultaneously maintain a pedagogy that upholds sustainable thinking.

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