21 July 2011

Turnitin and cheats: what one lecturer did at the Stern School of Business of New York University

Stephen Downes wrote today about one lecturer's experience with plagiarism detection software.

The link, to a blog posting by Panos Ipeirotis, may not work because he has been asked to remove the entry by his employer for legal reasons. However, even if you can't get to his original posting, read the comments from others about his posting (on his blog). Also of interest are the remarks he posted on the Business Insider website. This lecturer has chosen to implement assessment strategies that make it difficult for his students to cheat, rather than relying on Turnitin to identify plagiarised assignments.

He wrote:
I doubt that I will be checking again for cheaters. This is a losing battle: as I use more advanced cheating detection schemes, the cheaters will adapt. I am not a policeman fighting crime. My role is to educate and teach, not to enforce honest behavior. This is a university, not a kindergarten.

Instead, I plan to use assignments that are inherently not amenable to cheating:

Public projects: The database projects that use the NYC Data Mine data is one type of an approach: the projects are public and it would be meaningless to copy a project from a past semester. The risk of public embarrassment is a significant deterrent.

Peer reviewing: The other successful project is one in which students research a new technology, and present their findings in class; the only grade they receive is from their peers in the class. The social pressure is so high that most of the presentations are of excellent quality. This year, the student presentation on augmented reality was so amazing that for an MBA class we decided to simply show to the MBA students the recorded presentation.

Competitions: In order to teach students how the web works, I ask them to create a web site and get at least 100 unique visitors. The student with the most visitors at the end of the semester gets an award (most often an iPod). I had some great results with this project (e.g., one student created a web site on "How to Kill Nefarian" and got 150,000 visitors over 8 weeks) and some highly entertaining incidents.

In other words, my theory is: Cheating (on a systematic level) happens because students try to get an edge over their peers/competitors. Even top-notch students cheat, in order to ensure a perfect grade. Fighting cheating is not something that professors can do well in the long run, and it is counterproductive by itself. By channeling this competitive energy into creative activities, in which you cannot cheat, everyone is better off.
I like his solutions.


17 July 2011

Thwarting the Shadow Scholar

Many of the academics I work with are very concerned about issues of plagiarism and academic dishonesty amongst their students. Many of their students speak English as a second or foreign language. These international students often struggle with everyday conversational interaction, let alone the difficulties associated with studying at a tertiary level in a borrowed language. The standard of English required by the institution of foreign students is quite low (an IELTS score of 6.5). Then there are the native speakers who just don’t know how to write, or to argue a case, or are apparently unfamiliar with academic discourse.

My academic colleagues know that at least some of these students submit work that isn't their own. They are concerned about the issue, and struggle - at times - to find a solution.

These academics fear most the paper mills manned by people like the Shadow Scholar, who took the time recently to outline his life and his contribution to higher education. For me, though, he isn’t the biggest threat to higher education. As I see it, the biggest threats are all the factors that prevent committed university teachers from implementing the solutions outlined by Mark Bauerlein – problems like under-funding, a high student:teacher ratio, poor teaching skills amongst university academics, a focus on disciplinary content at the expense of generic skills of communication, argument, synthesis, evaluation, and judgement, lack of institutional recognition of good teaching in the academic promotion game – those kinds of things.

“It’s simple, really,” Bauerlein says, “but laborious.”

Hmm-mm – sounds like good, solid, well-resourced, committed teaching to me. Now, if only there were more respect for that ...

10 July 2011

Digital Natives or Digital Learners?

One of my favourite Net  Gen Skeptic bloggers, Mark Bullen, has been in Lisbon at the 2011 ED-MEDIA conference. He has reported on some of the papers that support his view that takeup of digital technologies is not generational, but criticized the authors for using Prensky's terminology. Among the papers he references is one from the excellent team at Wollongong (this one authored by Corrin, Bennett and Lockyer).

Bullen argues that we shouldn't be talking about digital natives, but rather digital learners.

I'm looking forward to hearing about the rest of the conference from some of the other Australians who attended - just as soon as they stop riding Segways around the cathedrals of Lisbon and come home (that would be Jenn Jones, Robert Fitzgerald, Mike Keppell, and several others).

07 July 2011

Why writing good learning outcomes isn't rocket science

I was recently asked to put together a one-page cheat sheet for highly intelligent university lecturers unused to writing learning outcomes for university courses (subjects).  Here's what I wrote.

Guidelines for those writing learning outcomes


1. The assessment strategy for a course is designed to provide evidence of how well students have achieved the learning outcomes.

2. The stated learning outcomes of a course align not only with the assessment design but also with the stated purpose and goals of the program/s into which the course fits.

3. Learning outcomes describe what students will be able to do once they have completed the course; they deal with functioning rather than declarative knowledge*.

4. Learning outcomes describe what all students will be able to do if they have passed the course; the assessment strategy will provide the evidence that allows the marker to differentiate between levels of performance.

5. Statements of learning outcomes include descriptions of how students will demonstrate both lower and higher order skills, with a focus on the latter**.


1. Each course needs 3-5 learning outcomes.

2. The statement about learning outcomes begins with the stem “Upon successful completion of the requirements for this course, students will be able to”.

3. Each learning outcome will describe a performance. Learning outcomes typically relate an action to the content taught in the course, describing how a student will demonstrate that he or she is able to apply the knowledge gained in the course, e.g. in solving a problem, completing a task, or analyzing or critiquing an issue or situation relevant to the course, the discipline and/or the profession.


Upon successful completion of the requirements for this course, students will be able to:

• Critique the notion of “alignment”,
• Compose statements of learning outcomes appropriate to the course, and
• Design an assessment strategy to collect evidence of how well students have achieved course learning outcomes.

* Declarative knowledge: "... propositional ... knowledge refers to knowing about things, or 'knowing-what': knowing what Freud said, knowing what the terms of an equation refer to, knowing what kinds of cloud formation can be distinguished, knowing what were the important events in Shakespeare's life. Such content knowledge accrues from research, not from personal experience. It is public knowledge, subject to rules of evidence that make it verifiable, replicable and logically consistent. It is what is in the libraries and textbooks and is what teachers 'declare' in lectures." Functioning knowledge: " ... based on the idea of performances of various kinds underpinned by understanding. This knowledge is within the experience of the learner, who can now put declarative knowledge to work by solving problems, designing buildings, planning teaching or performing surgery. Functioning knowledge requires a solid foundation of declarative knowledge." (Biggs & Tang, 2007, p 72)

**Lower order skills include those of knowing and understanding; higher order skills include those of applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating. (cf Bloom's Taxonomy - for an interesting take on the Taxonomy, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Blooms_rose.svg)

Biggs, J & Tang, C 2007, Teaching for quality learning at university: what the student does, 3rd edn, McGrawHill, Maidenhead UK & New York USA.