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Is plagiarism a problem for eLearning?

March 2, 2008

graffito of word EASE

Certainly it’s perceived to be a serious and growing one. One recent survey, by Northumbria Learning, found that half UK HE students believed their tutors would fail to spot work that had been plagiarised from the internet; while another, by the Times Higher Educational Supplement, found that 1 in 10 students had attempted to find model essays online. JISC, the UK HE technology advice and research body, has set up an Internet Plagiarism Advice Service and will be holding its third International Plagiarism Conference later this year. A JISC report suggested that student plagiarism was “common and probably becoming more so”; Oxford University has suggested that internet plagiarism was becoming so rife that the reputation of its degrees was in danger of being undermined; and Google has responded to these fears by banning adverts from the so-called ‘online essay mills’.

On the back of these concerns, plagiarism prevention has become highly profitable, with 90% of UK universities – more in north America – paying to use plagiarism-detection software, mostly using a package called Turnitin from US company, which uses a smart search of possible online sources combined with textual analysis of assignments using a rapidly growing database of past students’ work.

However there is little solid data supporting this perceived explosion of copying-and-pasting from the internet. Closer reading of the THES survey for example suggests that the overwhelming majority of student copying is done not online but offline from friends, and that only a tiny percentage of students – 3% – are copying wholesale chunks of text.

It’s not easy for academics to stand out against the plagiarism panic, but a few do. Barry Dahl, VP of Technology and Distance Learning at Lake Superior College, Minnesota, maintains there’s no evidence supporting the assertion that online plagiarism is more prevalent (it’s merely that online students get caught more than traditional students) and that plagiarism detection software is both a gross infringement of student intellectual property rights, and less effective than intelligent use of Google (see Turnitin Sucks).

And Steven Heppell, Professor of New Media Practice at Bournemouth University and UK government advisor on education and technology, thinks at least some of academia’s plagiarism concerns are the result of industrial-age thinking about learning as information transfer, students “learning stuff’ and then being tested to see how much of it has been absorbed. He points out in his weblog that

One huge impact of ubiquitous [internet] technology is to move information towards being a free good. So much information, so many providers. All the heated debates about IPR and plagiarism fall away with the realisation that, like Technology, Information is everywhere… (Play to Learn, Learn to Play, 20/10/2007)

In a learning environment where Google, Wikipedia and the social web have made virtually all information public, free, and collective in nature, the idea of information ownership begins to lose its meaning. Perhaps plagiarism too.

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  1. You’ve added a slight twist that I’ve not seen before. Intriguing, John.

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