Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Open University's approach to plagiarism

I spent the day at an OU internal conference on plagiarism. Until now, most of my engagement with this subject has been people coming to the Moodle Quiz Forum expecting technological magic bullets. There seems to be a depressing assumption in some quarters that preventing students from copying or pasting during a quiz attempt, or from using a spell checker, in some way helps the validity of an assessment. And using Google during a quiz attempt is surely cheating, it couldn't possibly be a valuable study skill for the 21st century?

Anyway, it is just not possible to enforce these kinds of restrictions from a web server application like Moodle. Image, for a moment, what would happen to the web if any advertiser could stop you leaving their horrible web site and going to Google to find something better. If you really want to set up a restricted environment (akin to the traditional invigilated/proctored exam hall) you need client-side software installed on the computer the student will be using. If you are looking for something like this, take a look at Safe Exam Browser, and open-source effort built on Firefox, which is now integrated into Moodle 1.9.6 (due for release soon). See MDL-19145.

I am pleased to say that the OU approach is diametrically opposed to this wishful chasing after technological magic bullets. The conference today started with two keynotes by Jude Carroll from Oxford Brookes University, who has been thinking about these issues for the last nine years, and who is an excellent speaker. She has the very clear summary of the issue: Universities have the responsibility/duty/privileged to accredit student's learning. They give the student a bit of paper saying that they have learned something, and in our society that bit of paper has a certain amount of value. So universities need to measure learning, and that is where assessment comes in. The real problem with plagiarism is that it breaks the link between what the student submits for assessment, what they have learned. If a student writes something in their own words, then that writing is good evidence of the extent to which they have taken in the ideas of a course. If they have just copied and pasted someone else's words, you cannot assess what they have learned. Also, teachers do not set assessment tasks just to measure students. We hope that performing the tasks helps the student to learn.

Jude also made the point that exactly is plagiarism does depend on the context. For example the level of experience of the student, the learning that is being assessed, what you are allowed to assume as common knowledge. Also, not all plagiarism is cheating, and not all cheating is plagiarism. Dealing with plagiarism must be done in an appropriate and proportionate way. To start with, understanding issues of academic honesty is an important learning outcome from a degree course, but it needs to be taught, it is not innate. It cannot be taught as an optional add-on ("the plagiarism lecture") but instead it must be embedded in the context of the subject early in a degree program. (By and large the OU does this in its introductory course.) When plagiarism happens, the response has to be proportionate. Early in a program of study, students need to be given feedback to help develop good academic practices. Later on, students should be expected to understand these issues, and plagiarism becomes a disciplinary issue, but still their need to be a range of fair and proportionate penalties.

The OU has clearly had a group of people thinking hard about this over the last few years, and that has resulted in a new plagiarism policy that was adopted last June. This conference was part of disseminating that policy more widely. There are now a range of penalties for various types of plagiarism, and a new role, 'Academic Conduct Officers' who can deal with most issues of plagiarism that go beyond what the student's individual tutors can deal with. This lets many cases be dealt with quickly, so that only the most serious cases have to be referred to the Central Disciplinary Committee.

Another part of the OU's response to this issue is a new web site Developing good academic practices, which I am afraid you will only be able to see if you have some sort of OU login, student or staff. That is a Moodle site in our VLE. It is a mixture of text to read, with a few audio clips, with a quiz at the end of each section. There is also a summary quiz at the end which draws questions randomly from all the other quizzes. The estimated study time for the whole site is 2 hours. It seems to be well done, and for me it is pleasing to see the quiz module used well, even if it is only multiple-choice and matching questions. The course has about 2300 quiz attempts at the moment.

Finally, the OU does use two technological means to detect plagiarism, CopyCatch and Turnitin, on a proportion of submitted work. However, this is only used to flag up possible cases that are then reviewed by a human. The third form of detection is that tutors marking the students' work can often spot problems. However, overall, the amount of plagiarism detected at the OU seems to be lower than that reported elsewhere. It is interesting to speculate why that might be.


  1. Tim

    Nice points - I like the Academic practices site. Surely it is about educating students into making argument rather than asking them to list everything they know about a subject. CopyCatch and Turnitin are last resorts - educate first.

    Mark (an Ou AL)

  2. I think there's a word (or two?) missing from this sentence: "Jude also made the point that exactly is plagiarism does depend on the context."

  3. Yes. Missing "what". Should be "the point that what exactly is plagiarism does depend"