Friday, July 22, 2011

Don’t police plagiarism! Instead design assignments that cannot be plagiarized.

Who says Facebook is a useless waste of time? This morning on my ride to work I was checking my Facebook on my iPhone (don’t worry - I was not driving!). I saw a post by a friend of mine on my news feed who was sharing a post by a friend of his entitled “NYU Prof Vows Never to Probe Cheating Again – and Faces a Backlash.” The link brought me to the article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that instantly riveted me to its text. It is a fantastic story of the real life struggles of university teachers in the war against plagiarism. You just have to read it before you continue on with this post. So take a break right now, go read that article and then come back here.

OK – so now that you’ve read the article I hope you agree with me that it is definitely interesting. What intrigues me about it is the last paragraph that provides some options on a different approach: designing assignments that cannot be plagiarized. Realistically, I think it is difficult to design assignments that are completely void of any risk of plagiarism; however, assignments can be designed that minimize the risk considerably (i.e. they provide disincentives to plagiarism). I’ve got a few ideas (most are applicable to the online classroom as well as the face-to-face classroom) and many of them involve student-to-student interaction, which is a bonus to those instructors that are seeking to make their courses more interactive:
  1. Group work. In my experience as a student, instructor and instructional designer, group work places additional pressures on students to avoid plagiarism. It is probably because the risk is greater. Should plagiarism be detected then the entire group risks sharing the same consequence. By using this student-to-student collaborative approach you also put additional responsibilities on students to develop their intra-group communication and teamwork skills. Skills that are required in every workplace! Bonus!

  2. Discussion. When it comes to expressing one’s idea in a discussion forum posting online that might be about 100-250 words in length or in a structured discussion in the face-to-face classroom, plagiaristic behaviours do not seem to immediately rise to the surface in most students. Most students can manage well in this form of cooperative student-to-student participatory activity. Therefore, designing a component of your assessment scheme devoted to discussion will be wise choice.

  3. Presentations. Once a students, has the additional pressure of having to share their ideas to the class in public, then the desires to plagiarize the work may be quenched to some degree. Public display is the driving factor here. Combine this presentation approach with the group work approach and then there could be a synergistic effect to the plagiarism disincentive.

  4. Peer review. In some courses it is difficult to avoid having a term paper in the assessment scheme – so plagiarism can become attractive to students in this scenario. So what strategy can be employed to discourage plagiarism in this setting? I can think of two ideas. The first is to have the first draft of the paper be subjected to peer review. Build into your assessment scheme that each student will select one first draft from a classmate and perform a critique on it. Give them a structure and a rubric for their critical feedback. Have items on the critique rubric represent anti-plagiaristic characteristics such as proper citation format, original work, consistency in voice and style across the paper. Of course, associate grades with this critique exercise so that people have an incentive to do a good job. There’s a chance that this peer feedback could set the student on the right track early in the process should any weaknesses be present. 2) Require that the students post the first draft, the associated critique and then the final paper electronically into an online discussion forum for all class members to see. This public display of one’s work at every stage adds the disincentive to plagiarize because the term paper may be exposed to more eyes than simply the instructor’s.

  5. Retain and display past student work for future classes in the form of a public wiki. Frame the term paper assignment in the context of building a repository of knowledge in the field to be shared publicly with the world using a wiki. Each time the course is taught the wiki expands with new student-generated work. The fact that the student term paper will be shared with people outside the classroom may provide additional disincentive to plagiarize.

  6. Have student’s build/create something that isn’t a term paper. In physics class have them make a rubber band racecar, test it, calibrate it, document the entire process and then have them race it against classmates at the end of the semester. In biology class, have go out into nature and photograph something themselves, repeatedly over time so as to observe developmental changes, and have them document their findings. In math class, have them go out in the world and collect real life data to use in the assignments. In English class, have them write original short stories and then practice their literary criticism skills by formally commenting on the original work of one of their peers. In history or journalism class, have them go out and interview people as sources for the material in their papers. In any class, have them make a movie or a digital story. By creating something they are working on something new - something different. It is more difficult to plagiarize when the subject matter is ‘new and different’. For most students, it will be more fun to unleash their creativity on the subject then to invest hours trying to devise plagiarisms schemes that will result in an equally creative product.

There are many more ways to design assignments to include disincentives to plagiarism. If you have a good idea, please share it with us below as a comment.

Bonus Tip: Don't do away with proctored final exams. There are already well-established plagiarism protections in these environments. Just avoid making exams worth 60% of the final grade, etc. The pressure to score well on such a high stake assessment can be crushing for many students.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Three ‘MUST HAVE” best practices in teaching online courses

If you came to read this posting to find a definitive list of best practices in teaching online courses, then please accept my apology.
I will not be compiling the large golden list of best practices in online teaching. Why you might ask? Well – because there is no definitive list. There are far too many variables in play in the online classroom (or any classroom really) to be able to represent all the best practices in online teaching in a short list. However, I do want to take a moment to discuss some findings by a research team who studied groups of online students at South Texas College and West Virginia University’s College of Human Resources and Education. What they focused their research upon was asking students in online courses very simple questions about the instructor behaviour:
  1. Please describe one thing the instructor did that helped you to succeed in this course.

  2. Please describe one thing the instructor did that hindered your success in this course.

The results are fascinating and you can read them all in detail in the original publication (pdf). However, summarized briefly are the four major perceived instructor actions that were responsible for course success:
  • Providing feedback that helped students understand their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Focusing discussions on relevant issues
  • Encouraging students to explore new concepts
  • Helping students clarify their thinking

Now, summarized briefly are the three major perceived instructor actions that hindered course success:
  • lack of feedback that helped students understand their strengths and weaknesses
  • poor communication of the important course topics (i.e. lack of course and lesson objectives, and lack of clear links between course material and the course description)*
  • poor instructions on how to participate in course activities/assignments*

If you examine these two lists you can make some additional observations which distil down to the three ‘MUST HAVE’ best practices:
  1. The topic of ‘feedback’ appears on both the positive and the negative list. That demonstrates how critical this item is to students. It’s a must. The distance instructor must be highly skilled in providing timely and detailed feedback. Furthermore, I will argue that this feedback has to be perceived by the student as being customized/personalized feedback for them. It’s not enough for the distance instructor to mark all the assignments with a simple number grade and then to broadcast to the class a message with the general strengths and weaknesses found in the assignments. Each student’s assignment must have specific and detailed feedback on it for the feedback to be perceived as positive success factor by students.
  2. The remaining ‘course delivery’-type points are focusing discussions, encouraging students and helping students clarify thinking. This type of feedback can be more class-based in nature. Well placed messages in the discussion forum guiding the discussion, introducing a relevant current event or highlighting the merits of a particular discussion point can go a long way. All these items can be done publicly for the entire class to see and benefit from. So the instructor must have a public presence in the online class.
  3. Note that the last two items marked with the asterix (*) in the negative list are instructional design weaknesses. They can be easily corrected with some additional up-front effort refining of the course materials prior to the delivery of the course. As an instructional designer I have experienced some instructors groaning when I have suggested to them that they formulate course objectives and lesson objectives. I’ve also heard similar groaning when I have provided feedback stating that the course assignment materials are not detailed enough, that a rubric would help or that a model solution might be useful to students. It’s true that formulating these support components of the course take time and that for some instructors the task is onerous because they are content-experts not instructional design experts; however, the findings in this paper clearly show that lack of attention to the instructional design components can be directly detrimental to perceived student success.

So despite this not being the definitive list, I certainly feel that these three findings that I have grouped together above are valuable best practices for the distance instructor in online courses. What do you think?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Why are you re-inventing the wheel? Use these education videos!

Almost every day something comes across your Twitter feed which is a golden nugget. A perfect little resource, tool or story that can help you in your practice of being an educator. However, once in awhile you hit the mother lode. Such is the case today with a blog called Open Culture: the best free cultural & educational media on the web. I was compelled to visit the site with their recent posting entitled 125 Science Videos: Our Greatest Hits. Wow – it’s a very appropriately titled post. There’s some great free videos on this list that touch on subjects relating to Astronomy, Space Travel, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Neuroscience, etc. Some of these videos could be used to augment a distance learning class or they could be shown directly in a face-to-face classroom setting. I took the opportunity to view a few of them. Some particularly interesting ones from my perspective were the Physics of the Bike, the Periodic Table of Videos project, and of course the very funny bit that Technology is Awesome but Nobody is Happy.

There’s a lot more interesting posts on this great Open Culture blog. So quit making plans to re-inventing the wheel by mounting your own video production company. Instead take the time to peruse all these free media objects. There will certainly be some appropriate ones for almost any course topic.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Student-to-student interaction in small distance courses

I have been asked several times about ideas for injecting student-to-student interaction into distance courses when the enrolment numbers are likely to be low. Some instructors feel that with low enrollment numbers that it might be better to design an assessment scheme that contains only individual work. However, I feel differently. I think that one of the factors that determines the satisfaction level of a student with a particular course is the community of learning that was present during the semester. To have a community student-to-student interaction is required. So despite a very short class list, you can still form an effective learning community. Some things you could consider include:
  1. Discussion. It’s the gold standard in cooperative student-to-student interaction. The deliverables are still individual but the students need each other in order to complete the tasks. There are many different ways you can build a discussion activity. Probably the most common way is for the instructor to post a few questions in the discussion forum at the beginning of the week and then ask students to answer a question in a reply post and then to comment on the answer to another student’s reply post. There are other ideas too. Select one student per week to write a summary or critique about the week’s required readings and then ask the other students to comment on their summary/critique in reply postings. There are many different models you can choose. You are only limited by your creativity here. And be sure to set clear guidelines about the quality and quantity of postings required to earn grades in this activity. These types of activities could work with as few as two or three students.

  2. Peer feedback. In courses where there is a major paper or a project, you can inject cooperative student-to-student interaction by assigning students the tasks of reviewing the first draft of a classmate’s final paper/project. Provide them structure/guidance on what the feedback should be like and then have them submit their feedback to both the student and to you. You of course will grade the quality of their feedback. One idea to push the envelope further on this type of assignment is to conduct the entire exercise out in the open in a discussion forum. Have students post their 1st drafts to the discussion forum and assign classmates to post their feedback/reviews of the 1st draft also to the discussion forum. Students can benefit by seeing 1st drafts of papers/projects of others as well as the feedback each person received. Of course, the graded piece at the end conducted by the instructor should be kept confidential and not be placed into the discussion forum.

  3. Group work. Cooperative student-to-student interaction is not the only type; there is also collaborative student-to-student interaction. That’s when you assemble a small team of students and assign them to produce a single group deliverable. In a small class – that equates to one team. It can be a paper, a Powerpoint presentation with speaker notes, a video, a podcast, a project, etc. It doesn’t matter – be as creative as you wish in choosing a deliverable that relates directly back to the learning objectives you are trying to serve. The key to conducting this type of activity is providing supports to help students accomplish this task at a distance. Almost all students will know how to work in a group in a face-to-face setting; however, in distance courses many students have far less experience. So I suggest the instructor prepare three supports: 1) a handout that explains some tips and tricks to effective teamwork at a distance. The handout should be tailored to match the deliverable in the specific course. In addition to discussing the deliverable, it should also discuss basic team functions such as the concept of needing a team leader, the importance of defining expectations between team members and role definition of members to facilitate task assignment, etc. This handout should include a standard team dynamic description (Bruce Tuckman’s model is the standard). 2) A mandatory Learning Team Charter. This requires students to create a document that contains all their contact information (including skype/twitter/facebook/IMs/TextMsgs), their expectations for the project, their personal strengths, weaknesses and interests. This document is central to starting the team off on the right foot with their communication strategy, and 3) Advice on tools. Create a private discussion forum for them where they can communicate, advise them that they can use brainstorming tools (like WallWisher - see this post) to generate ideas for their group paper/projects, advise them that they can use a wiki to collaboratively author a single document without emailing multiple versions of the document over and over, advise them that they can use a file repository service (like dropbox) to share centrally resources they collect while conducting research on their paper/project. One other important aspects of group work at a distance is that a component of the final grade MUST include peer evaluation. I suggest the component be fairly large – like 20%. 20% of the grade for this assignment should be based on a confidential evaluation of their group members that students submit only to the instructor at the end of the course. This gives incentives to students to perform at a high level in the team activity. Let’s face it – group work at a distance is an important skill to develop because it is increasingly present in almost every workplace. So giving students the opportunity to develop these skills in university courses is very worthwhile.
The above three categories of ideas are not exhaustive. There are many more ways in which you can inject student-to-student interaction into a web-enabled distance course even if the enrollment numbers are low. What are your ideas? Leave a comment below.