Homework, Plagiarism and Intellectual property in the 21st Century

I went to school in Brighton, and while the Brighton Evening Argus is the daily evening paper for quite a wide area, I don't think of it having an international readership. So I was surprised when Robert Scoble Linked to one of their education stories: Lecturer bans students from using Google and Wikipedia. It's by no means an isolated concern,  BBC had a story that "More than half of teachers believe internet plagiarism is a serious problem among sixth-form students". 

When I went to school, we had a standard history book and the teacher told us "I know exactly what's in there, so I'll know if you just copy stuff out " When I went to University the Internet was embryonic: the search engine we were taught to use was the library catalogue. I think it was expected to quote what we found in the library to show we'd done assignments properly.  The Internet is a fantastic library - though one that needs to be used with care, as the Ronnie Hazlehurst obituary debacle showed.

One of the surprises I had at the BETT show was the number of questions brought to us which were answered quickly by an on-line search. There do seem to be a proportion of teachers who don't search on-line.  To my mind educators at all levels should
(a) Encourage searches, but with that "I'll know if you just copy" message - updated as "I've already read the Wikipedia entry and the top search results for this". I'd put phrases which looked out of place in student essay straight into Live Search and/or Google. There's even a Plagiarism Advisory Service  for testing en-masse.
(b) Foster collaborative working by encouraging students to research different aspects and share the items they find - Eileen was wowed by Taffiti's ability to blog stuff on live spaces.
(c) Develop students' ability to distinguish good sources from bad
(d) Develop a culture of attributing research sources used. It's the difference between building a provenance to add to the value of your work, and being accused of plagiarism

As soon as the P word comes up I think of Tom Lehrer (and I was fortunate enough to get his complete work on CD for Christmas.)  

Let no one else's work evade your eyes,
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
So don't shade your eyes,
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize...
Only be sure always to call it please, "research".

The difference between research and plagiarism is attribution. But we live in a world where pictures posted to the Internet are taken and reused without consent, where it is common to steal music and, increasingly, films (not forgetting software) and where the public sides with thieves who make a fortune by stealing the design of a game (Acknowledgement to Sharon for that link). Encarta defines plagiarism as "copying another person's idea or written work and claiming it as original". Of the students who worry teachers, I wonder how many are claiming the work as original, and how many just use anything found on the Internet without any sense that it is another person's; that intellectual property is property. Should educators be explaining that ?  

Back in the 1980s someone mooted the idea that in addition to the schools staple of the "3Rs" (that's Reading 'riting, and 'rithmatic for non-UK readers) there should be an additional R, the teaching of "Right & Wrong" (I remember Mrs Thatcher being involved, but whether she was arguing parents should teach this or schools I can't recall). It was out of the question - trendy thinking in the teaching profession held that it was oppressive even to impose spelling and grammar on children, who should express their ideas.  I don't think students should be told to rewrite the work of others so it appears to be their own - that is plagiarism. If they make proper use of other people's work to develop, even express, their ideas - that's fine with me. For example
"On subject X there are two basic positions. Expert A says that [long quote from A, properly attributed], the key part is [requote] because [original writing]. Those who disagree with this have a particular problem accepting [requote] and their view is best summarized by Expert B who says that [Long quote from B also properly attributed]. The weakness in this is [requote] because [original writing] or as Expert C says [further quote].
If the choice of quotes and the surrounding, original, material combine to demonstrate understanding, then the student should get a good grade. And if they regurgitate someone else's words without showing understanding they get a bad one. Which is pretty much what my history teacher was saying 30 years ago.

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Comments (1)
  1. Jonathan Noble says:

    I must admit that when I saw the original story about the Google/Wikipedia ban, I was thinking exactly what you say about the search engine being the library catalogue.

    To my mind two things have changed: 1) the library is just bigger now, and 2) you have to be more careful to ensure that what you’re finding in the "library" is accurate. Where students used to go to the library, find a book with relevant text and quote/re-phrase bits, the fact that you now can’t rely on all the sources which claim to be authoritative, encourages one to seek confirmation elsewhere. That is probably the important thing to teach.

    I’ve always been of the opinion that students should be encouraged to make proper use of the resources that they would have available to them in the real world. A prime example being in the teaching of mathematics – there are some things that a genuinely useful to be able to work out in your head, but others that you would never realistically do without a computational tool. In those cases, what should be assessed is a student’s ability to use that tool, not their ability to do it on paper, which they would most likely never do again. I think using Google is analogous to that.

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