Technology Ethics: An Oxymoron?

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was part of a panel at the NJ Writing Alliance conference last Friday. I was asked (and then asked myself here on the blog), "Does technology actually help writing ethics?" The panel was supposed to address "Writing Ethics and Technology." The panel and audience was a nice K20 mix (though heavier on 9-20).

We had brief presentations about using plagiarism detection programs like Turnitin and SafeAssign by Blackboard. Another presenter opened up the idea of strategies that can be taken at the departmental/institutional level to raise awareness on plagiarism and its prevention. I got to wrap things up before the Q&A and I decided to call my brief presentation "Technology Ethics: An Oxymoron?" The PowerPoint that accompanied the presentation is available online.

I'm certainly an advocate for the use of technology for lots of areas in education. At NJIT, I served as admin for Turnitin for five years, served on the Honor Committee and did plenty of training on using the tools. Still, I have my doubts about tech as the cure.

I have been collecting information on this from my own campuses and from the presentations of others for the past 8 years, and almost everyone agrees on the main points.

When students themselves are asked what methods they use or observe being used to cheat on their writing the list usually contains these five:

  1. Copy/paste from Internet

  2. Previously submitted papers (What we called the "Greek Method" in my undergrad days when the source were the file cabinets of archived papers in frat houses. "If Professor Foolscap is going to keep assigning that topic, we might as well recycle the answers.")

  3. "Unintentionally" since students copy/paste "notes" during research online without noting the sources, they are stuck when it comes time for citations."I don't remember where I got this information any more."

  4. The low-tech method of yesteryear - copying from someone in the course with minor changes - is still popular. Students may also claim that they only "worked together" and so their results were "similar." Group work, in loosely structured situations, actually fosters plagiarism.

  5. Free and for-hire online "Paper Mills" - I found that the free sites will show up in Turnitin & other searches because they are used so often. But having someone write an "original" paper for you beats all the technology.

Does using technology to combat plagiarism counteract the use of technology to plagiarize by our students? Is technology more the problem or the solution?

Cheating and plagiarism by students isn't new, but the the overwhelming use of the Internet for research has made combating and detecting plagiarism much more difficult.

There's plenty of opposition to using services like Turnitin or SafeAssign that require buying a product. (Turnitin is a standalone purchase; SafeAssign comes with your purchase of the Blackboard CMS.) While I was the admin for Turnitin at NJIT, in every presentation I did to faculty about using the service, there was at least one question about "student intellectual property rights" - not a topic you hear faculty bring up too often.

Student papers submitted to the Turnitin service generally are made part of the massive database of papers that the service checks against. The ethical problem some people have is that the company is using student work for profit. There have been lawsuits about it -and iParadigns LLC/Turnitin seems to win. (see the recent "Judge Rules Plagiarism-Detection Tool Falls Under Fair Use")

If you're opposed to using proprietary software, or the IP issue is too much for you, or you're just a fan of open source solutions, there are two alternatives to try.

PAIRwise from the University of California at Santa Barbara offers instructors a tool that identifies likely instances of plagiarism. It is an automated, web-based system that compares students' work with one another. It also searches the open Internet for matches with students' work. As with all these types of programs, it identifies likely plagiarism, but judgments about what is actually plagiarism is always left to instructors themselves. So far no programs can replace humans with AI to make that decision.

Another free program is Copyfind from the University of Virginia that also allows you to examine a collection of document files. It extracts the text portions of those documents and looks through them for matching words in phrases of a specified minimum length. When it finds two files that share enough words in those phrases, the program generates report files.

The UVA site admits that there are things Copyfind cannot do: It cannot search for text that was copied from any external source like the Net, unless you include that external source in the documents you give to Copyfind. It works on only purely local data. If you suspect that a particular outside source has been copied, you would need to create a local document containing that outside material and include this document in the collection of documents that you give to Copyfind. Plus, you need someone who can download the C++ source file and compile it using a C++ compiler.

So, both programs offer less power than a Turnitin, but eliminate some of the ethical issues. But does the technology really help?

I believe you need technology to keep up with the technology that students are using to research and write. Everyone on he panel agreed that if you are only using these tools to catch instances of plagiarism, you're missing most of the value. They can be used to teach research skills like paraphrasing and citation. The best teachers use them in that way.

I've heard people say that unlike an honor code, the software assumes that everyone is guilty. Have you gone through the security check in an airport lately? Does that assume that we are all guilty? Or does it treat all of us equally in order to protect the innocent?

I have done many workshops for faculty about academic integrity and I have been surveying those faculty about why they are often reluctant to report instances of cheating or plagiarizing by their own students. It's not a comfortable thing to admit - that you look the other way - but teachers have often told me that they do. Here are the reasons I most often have heard:

  • They prefer to deal with it themselves. Either they feel it's their job to deal with it or perhaps they feel it shows a flaw in themselves as teachers to admit that their students have cheated.

  • A desire to give students benefit of doubt and be "fair." This seems especially true when they feel the consequences (dismissal, probation, loss of financial aid) seem harsh.

  • Add to the previous reason that idea that they wonder about their role - mentor, role model, police, judge.

  • There's a strong feeling on many campuses (this is a K-20 issue) that they don't have the time to deal with it using "the system" and that

  • includes a perceived lack of support from administration

  • They don't have hard "proof" of the cheating and obtaining proof takes time. Programs like Turnitin actually provides proof in black & white & colors and I have to say that my experience at NJIT using it with the Dean of Students office was very positive.

  • The last reason is one that was once the domain of K-12 teachers but has been moving into higher education more each year. That is a fear of legal action by a student and/or their family.

Academic integrity is a very large and very important topic. What I have written here is highly condensed, but i invite your comments and additions.

Finally, here are my own concluding thoughts.

  1. Educate your students about plagiarism. It IS your job. It's not someone else's job.

  2. First, use the technology to teach research writing.

  3. Then, use the technology to help detect cases of plagiarism.

  4. Don't ignore occurrences of plagiarism. Let students know you will take action, and follow through.

  5. You can't check all of the web. The surface web versus deep web estimates vary about the deep (dynamic, unlinked, private) web, but generally I read that search engines access about 20% of the full web. Turnitin can get into some of that. How much isn't known.

  6. Don't use and reuse assignments from previous years, other classes or ones found online. I'm convinced that at least half of all occurrences of plagiarism by students could have been eliminated by assignments constructed more thoughtfully.

  7. Ultimately, what are we as teachers most interested in - detecting or preventing plagiarism? Teaching students these things and teaching them well is much more than MLA style.

  8. Keep up with the technology your students use. Text messages, web pages, and images sent via cell phones during testing to other participants or accomplices at other location; entering & storing data in phones & other portable devices; hacked exams from faculty computers and intercepted print jobs; assignments, textbook resources etc. found online; audio crib notes on players to be listened to during exams. Hi-tech cheating and online paper mills hasn't replaced copying papers or making up sources. It has just added options and temptations.

  9. Encourage discussions about academic integrity in your classroom, department, school, college, university. Strong global policies with clear consequences make a difference.

  10. Make your efforts known on campus. Posters with policies, honor code statements on exams, training during orientation, articles in the school newspaper (and that includes publishing statistics on incidences and the results of disciplinary action) are powerful. They don't put only one speed limit sign on the highway. The message needs to be heard often and from different sources.

The 9th Annual NJWA Conference was held at Georgian Court University on April 4, 2008.

The Writing Ethics and Technology panel:

  • Using SafeAssign from Blackboard, Mary Zedeck, Seton Hall University

  • Using as a Teaching Tool, Oona Abrams, Pascack Valley High School

  • Using, Pros and Cons, Virena Rossi, Pascack Hills High School

  • Institutional Strategies to Create Awareness of Plagiarism, Laurie Lieberman, Bergen Community College

  • Technology Ethics: An Oxymoron? Ken Ronkowitz, Passaic County Community College


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