End online plagiarism with dialogue (its free!)

Curbing student plagiarism doesn’t have to involve purchasing expensive software that detects 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.


Individuating student work in a collective think space

More and more, we can imagine an internet that is used daily by students to harness the powers of  “collective” or distributed intelligence for producing intellectual work of a higher caliber. The idea behind it is to plug oneself into a network of thinkers.  Ideas will be enriched by the dialogue of interweaving minds thinking and co-operating over universally shared academic problems. This process can be found in many peer-to-peer student networks strewn across the internet. Sometimes, the cooperative activity will be limited to the exchange of pre-packaged thought/”intellectual property” (tips, copies of old exams) in which case the project becomes perceived as a free, web 2.0 version of the internet paper mill.

Yet this type of peer-to-peer setup in itself does not tell us whether students are offloading intellectual labor (practiced by the “freeloader” in any student group) or actually assuming even higher cognitive responsibilities that can be associated with dialogic thinking activities (one who includes greater inputs into the ultimate analysis).   Either scenario could be the case since more cooperating inputs or voices in a room could lead to both more or less cognitive activity being performed by any individual thinker. Once again, it becomes helpful to see particular internet activities as a neutral tool that can yield both positive and detrimental pedagogical outcomes, depending on how they are used.

The perceived problem may stem from the fact that these collective student activities are performed away from the educator’s gaze.  These spaces existing outside the institutional sphere create yet another obstacle preventing the educator from assessing the individual’s contribution within the network. Moreover, since educators don’t typically have the time or means to monitor the cognitive progress of its individual students,  schools can only afford to create an even larger rift between the old and the new spaces of learning.


Clearly, the problem lies more with the limits to academia as an institution as it is a problem with emergent technologies on the internet. Since schools may not know how to interact with spaces and processes that lie beyond the scope of its control, they often address the problem with an inadequate, but easy-to-implement solution: all back-channel communication between students is to be perceived as suspect and subject to disciplinary measures.

So a question for educators and academic administrators: Do you really think that you will gain in the long run by continuing to shove these fecund  and technologically neutral spaces of student activity into the “cheating” box? Will there/should there be an intervention at some point to incent these popular websites to ban academically unpopular practices such as the wholesale transfer and exchange of pre-packaged ideas that don’t inspire cognitive follow up? How does one evolve the university-outside technology relationship to include oversight within these spaces given the economic and resource contraints of overseeing cognitive processes (as opposed to cognitive products)?  I have begun to see some universities, like UNC-Chapel Hill, partner with a start-up to create spaces of intellectual collaboration across departments. This may be the mayor’s equivalent of setting up a space for graffitti offenders to practice their craft within an approved space. The fact that these academically approved spaces haven’t opened up to wider audiences is beyond me.