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Plagiarism and Influence September 26, 2007

Posted by Michael McVey in Assessment, Literacy, Online Tools.
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plagiarism   My daughter, a middle school student, slowly explained to her stone aged father that she had to submit her assignment to a class blog. I was excited to see the writing process at work, from reading to thinking to composing to editing to polishing and, finally, to posting.Seeing her write was interesting, of course. Her task was to evaluate an online news article and she handled the project as well as any other kid in her class would have. She took pride in the article she found after evaluating several child-focused news sites. In her determination, National Geographic had the best articles for her needs; bonus points for evidence of higher order thinking.

She posted her entry on the class blog and my RSS reader notified me immediately. It was interesting to read what other students wrote and then figure out how much influence adults had on the piece.

One response was a single sentence; bonus points for doing it entirely on your own.
One had misspelled some common words; points off for not using a spell checker.
Some wrote about music stars; bonus points for choosing your own article.
Some responses were about car crashes; points off for not choosing a current event.
One was about the Alternative Minimum Tax. Hands up if you parent is a CPA.
One response weighed in at twenty sentences; points off for too much parental influence.

This is the point at which parental influence bumps up against the issue of plagiarism. My pre-service student teachers get riled up about plagiarism too, but on mentioning programs that scan for plagiarized articles, to my surprise, there was not uniform support for such tools.

Charlie Lowe, spokesperson for the Caucus on Intellectual Property and Composition/ Communication Studies (CCCC-IP) wrote publicly that plagiarism detection services such as turnitin, iThenicate, and iparadigms are creating the wrong atmosphere for writing in schools. The organization’s statement  notes that academic integrity can be compromised in at least five ways:

1. since students’ writing is going into databases, students are losing authority over their work;
2. students are viewed as guilty until proven innocent and not as trustworthy learners;
3. the services promote a culture of mistrust;
4. the responsibility for detecting plagiarism is removed from the professor, and;
5. the databases of student work risk being available to third parties not directly engaged in the educational relationship originally implied.

The act of plagiarism, when it occurs, is a teachable moment between the teacher and student – and both should benefit. The student should come away from a discussion about writing with a renewed understanding that his writing is being read and considered by someone. The student should come away with a sense that his own ideas are what are being sought in the writing assignment. The student should realize that the most important thing teachers are asking is for students to engage with a concept and writing is a way of making it their own.

The teacher must come away with a lesson learned also. If a student can think she can get away with a copy and paste product from a web site or an online encyclopedia, then the teacher has not created an engaging assignment. The teacher should come away with the understanding that assignments need to engage, to challenge, and to promote an inner dialogue with material they are studying. If the student can just copy and paste to fill out a traditional ten pages, then it is time to re-examine the assignments that teachers are imposing.

There is a great deal of support for p-20 teachers who are looking for ways to change their ways of assessing students. From self tests and study guides to portfolios and synthesis projects, teachers have more at their disposal than the ten page paper.

In my observations, most students will rise to the challenge of being assessed in novel ways and some teachers will attempt the change.

Cheating February 25, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Assessment, Online Tools, Students.
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cheater  On Friday, one of our departments had graduating students take their final Comprehensive Examinations. Gone are the days when they would be scratched out on paper. I brought in five laptops for the writers. The department Admin brought in fresh diskettes but was surprised when I told her most laptops these days do not have floppy drives.

There were several solutions to her dilemma which I proceeded to tick off. The one that worked best for her, though, was to bring down a portable floppy drive so she could transfer each completed examination to its own disk. I have stopped questioning my Administrative colleagues and have learned to become satisfied with the idea that if it works for them I won’t press for other ways of accomplishing the same task.

As I set up the laptops I disengaged the wireless function so the students could not get online to research the answers to the questions. Access to the Internet has become an issue with examination proctors. In a nearby college, one candidate discovered he had access to the Internet during his comprehensive examination and then entered the entire question into the Google search engine. He downloaded several articles and even e-mailed a colleague for some feedback. And even though floppy diskettes were not allowed, he managed to slip in a thumb drive with notes on it.

This is not just hearsay. What the student failed to realize was every time he got online he was leaving behind a history of links visited and the times he visited them. Every search he entered into Google was stored in its entirety. Every site visited was recorded. When he trashed the PDF files he retrieved online, there was still a record of it. When he inserted his g:\ drive into the computer, there was a record of it in Word. When he called up Yahoo to check his mail, he left his address behind.

There are tools available to clean your tracks and you can do a decent job even without fancy software. But there is no replacing good common sense and hard work. Despite a detailed chronology of computer activity that was constructed based on this person’s cheating, he still sought an academic appeal. The gun was smoking and the knife still dripping. There were witnesses, photographs, video surveillance, and a self confession but he still sought an appeal.

Hope springs eternal.

Academic Karma February 16, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Assessment, Online Tools.
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survey   Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a professor about a survey she wanted to post online. I felt like I had been posting quite a few of those surveys on my site recently. The conversation worked its way around to population and sample, basic elements in the creation of any study, when it dawned on me that if the survey had appeared in my own e-mail pile, I would probably have discarded it.

How many surveys, I wonder, do people simply discarded out of exhaustion? People I know are crawling through their e-mails trying to deal with the most pressing and important items first, then dealing with the rest of them that can be expeditiously put away or deleted outright after a quick glance. Surveys land in an odd place in our time triage. If they were all roughly asking for the same commitment of time, we could glance at a clock and decide we had the five minutes to spare. However, I have seen surveys recently that go on for pages, online, and give no indication of when they are going to end. I love, and have used regularly, indicator graphics to show my participants how close to the end they are. I try to avoid posting surveys that ask for too many comments from participants. Writing takes time and good writing takes some thought. If you want a decent answer from people, try not to let your questions wear them down.

If you encountered a survey asking you to read a statement, and then write a response on the blank page attached, you would have to ask why, and whether anybody would ever actually read your work? I would wager that you would find a good reason not to do it. If you make the space for the answer smaller people may be inclined to write a little, but still, they might wonder if the effort you are asking them to expend would be worth it.

I feel sometimes like the length of time I spend working on a survey is indirectly proportional to the number of responses the survey writer is ever going to see. I told my colleague that seeing so many surveys in my e-mail had the effect of a narcotizing dysfunction, the sheer number of them numbs me, and I simply trash them. Her response is that she feels obliged to answer every one since she puts out so many surveys herself. It is a form of academic karma, I suppose.

Technology’s Effects December 28, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Assessment, Funding.
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assessment   Recently, another study was released suggesting no significant difference on test scores from the influence of the technology. The study looked at the impact of the E-Rate federal program, which has spent almost two billion a year since 1998 to bridge the “digital divide” between schools in rich and poor districts.

While the research confirmed that the number of poor schools going online increased dramatically, the fact that more students had access to the Internet had zero impact on each school’s performance on the Stanford Achievement Test, which has been administered in California since 1997.

“We didn’t find any evidence that increased access to the Internet led to improved test scores,” Jonathan Guryan, associate professor of economics at the university’s Graduate School of Business, said.

As to why Internet access didn’t boost student learning, Guryan said it was possible the schools did not know how to make effective use of the Web, or it’s just not an effective way to boost test scores.

Actually, it is somewhat reassuring to me that scores on these tests have not plummeted with students spending so much time on the Internet. Perhaps the real issue is that we are making a smooth transition to a completely different way of intereacting with information in the world.

This all begs the question about the efficacy of the Stanford Acheivement Test and what it was designed to test and how it is designed to test it. Again, if scores have not dropped over the years despite increased access to the Internet it may be an indicator that the tests have not kept pace with new assessment techniques.

So it should come as no surprise that one state is considering legislating computerized examinations for elementary and middle schools. The biggest drawback with standardized tests, aside from their extremely limited scope, is that it took too long for results to get back into the hands of teachers so they could effect change in the classroom. Advocated of standardized tests have often cited the feedback the tests provide as a rationalization for their existence but in reality this is far from the truth.

Interestingly, some states have decided that technology in the classroom is worth spending money on. Soon all seventh grade students in Illinois will receive laptop computers. Results of studies conducted in Henrico County in Virginia were encouraging enough to warrant such an expense. In Henrico County, students recorded the highest ever scores on the SAT, both verbal and math, in four years on the program.

Worries over Literacy December 27, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Assessment, Information.
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assessment   In a Washington Post article on the declining reading scores of college students came the following excellent line:

“What’s disturbing is that the assessment is not designed to test your understanding of Proust, but to test your ability to read labels,” . . . added Mark S. Schneider, commissioner of education statistics. 

So why are scores of graduates declining? After years of testing in elementary, middle, and high school with an eye toward someday having scores good enough to get into university, the participants may have simply grown jaundiced and disinterested in participated in reading tests. Furthermore, why are we even bothering to test the ability of graduate students to read labels?  

It is interesting that Schneider mentions label-reading. To my recollection, this was the major rationalization for the creation of reading tests in the first place. Newspapers were awash with horror stories of people not able to read simple labels in supermarkets and high school graduates who could not fill out application forms. 

Scheider also mentions the impact of the computer. He said, “It may be that institutions have not yet figured out how to teach a whole generation of students who learned to read on the computer and who watch more TV.” 

I am still scratching my head over that one. He suspects that it might be a different kind of literacy involved. I suspect that we are in for a new set of tests that will challenge students to use embedded hyperlinks to find and use information among a collection of different types of texts. 

Finding information by using hyperlinks and having an understanding of what links to click is a deep part of computer literacy. One click will order a column of information, another click will send mail, another will engage an engine in a search you must define, and yet another will open a review of a product. That set of skills is encountered by even very young children reading and researching online. Within minutes a child might have to interact with the material on the screen several times. This set of skills conflicts with the inherent bias of tests to finding out what you cannot do properly. 

During interactions with the computer, if a student does not get the expected results by clicking a symbol or word, it is a simple matter of checking the instructions and clicking somewhere else again until you figure out what is needed to progress. Static paper and pencil tests are left far behind by this new skill set. Fill in a bubble incorrectly and you might find out it is incorrect months later.

Interactivity foils the goals of test writers.

Accommodations December 19, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Assessment, Students.
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Spellings   With so much of educational technology wrapped up in issues related to testing and academic achievement, I found news from Washington encouraging. 

It was a while in coming, but finally the Department of Education is going to allow more flexibility in the way students with significant learning disabilities are tested. Ever since Congress enacted into law No Child Left Behind, I have been writing about how frustrating the new rules were when they pertained to Special Education students. 

A few years ago, I was able to pose a question about accommodations online to the Secretary of Education Rod Paige during a live chat. The response on the part of the Department was that they were going to stand firm on their requirements. The administration scoffed at people who asked for modifications to the rules. They saw giving in, at the time, as a sign of weakness. Sigh. 

After years of explaining just how frustrating it can be for a student with learning disabilities to take the pencil and paper tests that pass for assessments these days, there is finally a little movement. Now, instead of testing students on 100 items, the test might contain only 75 items. It is a beginning. 

The real problem is with the expectations NCLB has for students with learning difficulties. The case for tough standards seems embedded in the illusion that these students are simply slacking and insufficiently challenged. My students worked hard every day with the help of teachers and parents to improve their skills. To watch them take tests at the tenth grade level when they were gallantly struggling with reading at the fifth grade level was a heart breaking experience. 

We never asked for dispensation from taking the tests; all we wanted was a common sense approach to testing.

Technological Literacy December 13, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Assessment.
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xbox   I felt a little like an old fogy today. My copy of the York University Alumni Magazine, Alumni Matters, arrived in my e-mail box today containing an article entitled York University professor says literacy of Xbox should be part of schooling. I have to admit that it took me a while to see things from the perspective of my colleague in Canada. That suggests that either my brain is not as flexible as it once was, or she was flat-out wrong.

Her point appears to be that technology creates new literacies. That point has been championed already by people like Cynthia Selfe who has been arguing the case for emerging literacies for years. Bertram Bruce has recently been asking aloud whether the Information Age will transform literacy as we know it. Daniel Kellener has also been urging teachers to treat the new ways technology process information as a new kind of literacy that needs to be taught like reading needs to be taught.

But my colleague from Canada suggests that sometimes a book alone is too static and limits children brought up in the information age. She even suggested that a video game could be reviewed and presented in English classes. Perhaps taking something 3D, as she calls it, and turning it into a static exercise in analysis is a little like singing the praises of parsing poetry.

She almost has it right though when she suggests that kids are being assessed on their ability to think and be literate using a “one dimensional slice of paper.” I guess she meant to say two dimensional, but I get her point. Assessment technology is miles behind the curve.

She gave several suggestions for how to incorporate technology in teaching complicated concepts but almost all of the good ones dealt with simulation technology. One of the ways of using technology she described sounded a lot like Sim City, a simulation in which you create a city and deal with all the attending frustrations and problems of managing it. For younger children, there are simulations like Zoo Tycoon and Roller Coaster Tycoon. I came across a new release today for older students who are interested in astronomy in which you can create a space station and populate it with a team of astronauts.

I guess the problem with the brief interview in this alumni magazine is that you can only squeeze so much into the brief column before your words can taken out of context by readers who do not have much time to read deeply. Okay, Dr. Lotherington, I am willing to suspend my disbelief, like Coleridge wrote, and read your full report.