At the end of last year I volunteered to put together an online plagiarism unit, something that would supplement and complement what we were doing in the classroom to tackle the whole issue. Students were signing a plagiarism code of conduct. Teachers were telling them what plagiarism was; and showing them how to avoid it, and we were using Turnitin and other plagiarism checkers. But somehow it wasn’t working. Plagiarism seemed to be on the increase, despite our efforts.
By the very nature of any whole school response to a problem, the policy was being applied rather patchily. Together with the library staff I, as ICT teacher, was teaching grade 8s and 9s how to use citations properly, but I was getting mixed results. While many students were able to use citations accurately by the end of the unit, many were not, even after explicit instruction. It seemed to me as if there was a kind of mental block – almost as if the why do we need to do this at all question was getting in the way of any ability to learn the procedures for citing, which are in themselves quite simple.
While all teachers were expected to require Turnitin reports with student essays, and many were: many were not, largely because teachers themselves did not understand how to set up and use an account, or what instructions to give students. While we are addressing these issues with extra training, the nub of the problem seemed to me to lie with the nature of plagiarism itself. All human knowledge is built upon on the foundations of what others have said and written. It is only at Masters or Doctorate level that a student is expected to add in some small way to the sum of human knowledge. No teacher really expects students to express an original idea – indeed such a thing may well be impossible even in the higher reaches of academia! And yet students feel under pressure to express their ideas, and are told by teachers that they need to be original, and that they cannot plagiarise.
Set someone an impossible task, and they are sure, not only to fail, but also to rebel against the task, and to my mind this is largely what we are doing with the whole issue of plagiarism. Don’t get me wrong – I believe schools need plagiarism policies.
But really, if you think about it, teachers often convey the wrong end of the message. We tell students not to copy, when actually all academics copy. We don’t tell them that avoiding plagiarism means that you must copy, because that’s what everyone does, but that you must just make sure that you reference your copying properly! Put this way there are no negatives, and that I believe is the key to putting together a more successful plagiarism policy! We shouldn’t be teaching kids not to copy, we should be teaching them how to copy properly!
In essence this implies a more conspiratorial approach, one which said to students: teachers are going blah blah blah about plagiarism to you, and plagiarism isn’t cool, but here’s what you actually need to know to make sure you don’t fall foul of the policy.
For this reason we launched an online course on plagiarism. This allowed me to source student-made YouTube videos on plagiarism. I didn’t want the material to have anything like the whiff of a teacher about it more than was necessary. But I also wanted some mechanism for giving feedback to students on their thoughts about plagiarism. The Quiz module on Moodle allowed this, giving feedback in a way which was less formal.
The course ends with a feedback survey, and we hope to see from this whether the format of the course was helpful to students or not. The course was put together in a hurry, but I would like to improve on it for next year by using student mentors to offer support on the course, and to replace the YouTube content with content made by students in the school.