(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali's blog has now moved to http://blog.mahabali.me

What my students taught me about plagiarism

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I am someone who has been administering Turnitin.com at my institution since 2003. I no longer administer it, but am still involved in occasionally helping people use it, interpret reports, etc.

I have also been teaching a teacher-education course about ethical, legal, social and human issues in educational technology.

This semester, I asked my students to blog a possible “plan” for introducing the ideas of copyright and/or plagiarism to either their students or colleagues at work. All of their responses were inspiring in different ways.

First, Rania’s post about the importance of introducing plagiarism not as something to be punished, but rather as a kind of “character building”, a way to encourage students to be proud of their work. Her last learning outcome for introducing plagiarism to students (which she does by example, by the way) is:

Students realize that academic honesty is not about spending nights rephrasing words or inserting quotation marks, but about bring a bit of oneself to his/her own work, about the uniqueness of one’s character and the distinctiveness of one’s own experience and culture.

This was a bit of an epiphany for me. It should be obvious, but I now realize the reason that some AUC students continue to plagiarize despite training in technical methods of citation. It is because they are probably taught it as a mechanical skill, rather than a value to embrace deep down.

Mohamed’s approach starts from the same standpoint: he suggests we start by discussing morality and how we judge something to be right or wrong… And he starts from the stance that everyone is good by nature and does not intend to do harm. And then discuss issues of plagiarism and copyright from that standpoint. He also thought of doing a kind of public wall in school to share what people learn (I’m not sure what would be on the wall, but it sounds like a good idea!).

Another great approach to introducing plagiarism (this one to adult teachers who are already aware of it) is Ahmed’s approach: he actually did a sort of role play (but without letting all people know about it) and had someone in a meeting plagiarize another person’s ideas, and then praised the plagiarizer. This is an idea I have had in mind but never tried. Ahmed came up with the idea on his own, tried it, and reported to us that it was very effective. The person who felt he was plagiarized was hurt and angry. Of course, they later explained to him that it was only “acting”.. But the message got through much more strongly than if it was done in a didactic way. Again, to quote Rania who was citing Sir Ken Robinson, just because you teach something does not mean it is learnt… And Ahmed did a good job of making sure it got learnt.

Mahmoud approached his teacher colleagues in a different but also very smart way: he invited them to participate in creating lesson plans for introducing plagiarism to students at various stages in school. This is a great way to get people interested and involved, and he is taking action right away (teachers should be involved in helping students learn about plagiarism/citation early on). He showed sensitivity to students’ different ages, e.g. By suggesting early stages learn about plagiarism via stories.

All of these ideas kept in mind the motivations and background of the learner, which are essential to teaching something new that is a value more than a mechanical skill.

I just thought these all had such good ideas in them, so I wanted to post the ideas on my blog to put them all in one place, to remember them and reflect on them further.

Although there are ethical ways of doing things that can be consider cheating by some (rhizo14 course participants came up with many examples) – the general idea of attribution remains dear to my heart.

I was just posting to one of my students’ blogs that even with creative commons, even when all copyright rights are given up, attribution remains the minimum ethical obligation we have.
Even in rhizo14 when people “stole” the poem, they kept saying whom they stole it from!!!

Having said that, in the #readmake book project, not every part is clearly attributed to a particular person (and not everyone even posted their names at the end to be attributed for contributing to the book overall). And that was fine, for that experiment. But in most real-life situations, attribution seems the moral minimum that we all need to maintain as far as possible. Doesn’t it?

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Author: Maha Bali

Associate professor of practice, American University in Cairo

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