A different take on plagiarism detection

I found this interesting piece by Steve Buttry  (a US journalist) on the evils of plagiarism and data fabrication in the newspaper industry this morning. What struck me as useful was the idea of using a Google Alert to pick up stories of interest, as opposed to the favoured academic practice of running students’ work through detection services like Turnitin or Safe Assign. I’ve been involved with Turnitin for years, and increasingly it’s approach strikes me as a rather crude approach to detecting plagiarism. In many ways we can usually tell whether a piece of work has been plagiarised simply by reading it.  – Turnitin’s role seems to be mostly to confirm the offence by identifying the original source.  (I’m not saying that’s not useful, or that Turnitin doesn’t have a role. Besides Turnitin’s other tools, like Grademark and PeerMark are very helpful)

The advantage of setting up a Google Alert on topics relevant to the assignment you are setting your students is that you are notified of a much wider range of sources than Turnitin will identify, and rather more quickly than Turnitin’s robots will find them.  The disadvantage is that you have to read them! Of course the students can use the same technique to research the topic, but presumably that makes any plagiarism easier to detect.  I’m not suggesting that we should abandon Turnitin at all. I’ve always seen detection services as one tool among many to help fight plagiarism. Can’t think why I never thought of Google Alerts in this context before.

Social media and academic freedom

I’ve been wondering for some time now about the relationship between educational technology and academic freedom. To what extent does technology actually mandate academic practice? Scholars who have looked at technology, such as David Noble, and Jack Simmons certainly see it as a threat, although it would be more accurate to describe their concerns as being related to the way that technology is used in universities.


As Noble, in Forces of Production (1984) has argued, technology is not an independent force that shapes us, rather it is itself shaped by social forces. He uses the example of the development of the machine tool industry to show how and why the technical development of that industry in the United States of America was determined by a combination of military requirements and the imperatives of capital. Which raises an interesting question for academics. How far are the technologies we use in learning and teaching determined by their social context. I’ve observed before that many of them aren’t really all that different from what went before. It may be true that in many disciplines, PowerPoint has largely replaced the blackboard, but it’s still, at bottom a visual aid. E-mail isn’t that different from the old system of memos and letters.  There is some potential for using web 2.0 tools and there are some interesting ideas out there, with a few academics getting students to edit live Wikipedia entries, for example. But equally, there are plenty of media stories about teachers (usually in schools) getting their fingers burned after posting intemperate messages on Facebook or similar sites. Although, quite who decides what might constitute an intemperate message is problematic. Clearly, insulting a named student or group of students in a public forum would be unprofessional, but blogging about a research finding that caused offence to some group or other raises different questions. If the research is sound, then surely it’s unprofessional NOT to blog about it, or at least to publish. The research question I’m slowly beginning to formulate here is whether, how, and to what extent using social technologies could ultimately compromise academic freedom. Clearly at this stage it’s rather ill-formed, but I’ll be using the blog to reflect on my thinking about this. If anyone else is interested in this, please do feel free to comment.

Technology and ideology

I’ve just been reading a very interesting article by Alan Amory. ((Amory, 2010) Education Technology and Hidden Ideological Contradictions. Educational Technology & Society, 13 (1) 69-79 for those of you who like references.)  His argument is that educational technology, as we use it in higher education is driven by a distinctively neo-liberal mindset that reinforces the status quo, rather then doing anything to promote radical change, or indeed doing very much to promote learning. While acknowledging that learning technologies need not be used this way, he describes reusable learning objects as being based on “totalitarian ideologies of instruction”. I think what he means by this is that they present learning as a sort of “jigsaw” that can be assembled into a picture, which itself has been defined by the status quo. In other words they don’t easily allow for re-interpretation into a new picture. He describes learning management systems (like Blackboard) as “observation and control systems” and blended learning as “perpetuating the past” by simply bringing technologies into existing courses without making any pedagogical change.  On the whole, I’m inclined to agree, although I’m not sure I blame the technologies for the way they’re being used.


To steal his rather nice phrase, it promotes learning from technology, rather than learning with technology.  He goes on to argue for a much more social approach to learning – that we should see technologies as tools rather than objects, and use them to encourage students to work collaboratively to produce new learning, which of course sits quite comfortably with the Student as Producer project here at Lincoln. We certainly don’t want to see students as consumers of a rather ill-defined “educational product” that they pay £9000 (or whatever) for? I’m not going to get into the question of exactly what the cost of a degree covers, since I can’t see that you can buy something that you do yourself, such as learning. But Amory’s argument suggests that universities should principally be providing a space where people can learn socially, a space which may or may not be digital, although these days I would expect it to have quite a significant digital component.


The problem is of course that LMS’s aren’t often used to support social learning. Many would say, rightly, that they’re not designed to, but most of them do have some features which could be used to encourage it. Blackboard has wiki tools, and discussion groups for example, but these are still usually tutor led. Amory suggests creating learning spaces in virtual worlds, where students and tutors can work together to identify and resolve problems related to the discipline, I can see how that might work in theory, although I haven’t seen any virtual world software that is nearly accessible (or robust) enough to be deployed on an institutional scale, (although I  suppose they don’t need to be 3D worlds like Second Life – they could just as well be text based). The theory is, and I admit to over-simplifying here, that students and tutors form social networks, based on a shared interest in the subject. The members of the network then work together to identify and resolve problems of importance to the discipline. Which is all very well, but it doesn’t get us away from education as a commodity. Marks are a commodity which are exchanged for another, academic work. How do we measure individual student’s contributions for assessment purposes in this kind of learning? Does it matter? More to the point of this post, how can we get the kind of social networking Amory describes inside an LMS or VLE?


Digital Students

I’ve been thinking a bit about Digital Scholarship, thoughts largely prompted by starting to read Martin Weller’s The Digital Scholar: How technology is transforming scholarly practice. (This isn’t a review, just rambling prompted by my reading) Martin’s book seems to be focused on the experience of academic staff, but digital scholarship is for me,  about students as much as academics and there’s an interesting quotation in chapter 1– “When teenagers are asked what they want from the Internet, the most common response is to get ‘new information.’ Close behind, at about 75 percent, is to ‘learn more or to learn better.’”


Now, when I see phrases like “learn better” my natural response is to wonder exactly what that means.  There are clearly limits to learning in a formal setting. Students only have to do enough to get their degree, or doctorate, and, unless they pursue their studies, or enter a vocation that requires that they use the knowledge they acquire, are free to forget it all the minute they’ve received the notification that they have passed.  I’m not suggesting that they do, but it does make me wonder whether “learn better” means “Arrive what I need to do as quickly as possible”? I think most of my academic colleagues would see that as a rather reductive and depressing approach albeit one that was entirely consistent with the neo-liberal attempt to commodify everything. The close relationship between “new information” and “learning” is also telling. Information clearly is a commodity. Learning (I think) is not.


What’s interesting about the social web is that it provides both. Information is freely available, although I suppose it’s not necessarily accurate. You might learn a lot through responses to your twitter accounts, blog posts, Wikipedia entries and so on, but only if you a) make an effort to make them, and b) anyone reads and responds to them, which is a roundabout way of saying that you need to be active in these networks if you are to learn from them. Fine as far as it goes, but a couple of things I’ve read recently throw a bit of a spanner into the works. Firstly, if you sign up to any free service, you, or more accurately, your on-line activity, become the commodity. The service provider can use that data in any way it sees fit. At worst you could lose all your data. (You do back up all your tweets, Flickr photos, Google Docs etc don’t you? Of course you do.) I suppose it’s more likely that a change in the way the service worked would mean you’d have to start working in different ways. Secondly, I do wonder if the instant provision of information is conducive to learning. The work of Carol Dweck at Stanford is quite persuasive in showing that learners with a mindset that focuses on making errors and working to correct them are much more effective then those who believe in natural intelligence, the latter being much more likely to give up if they don’t find a quick fix. So if a Google search doesn’t find the answer do they decide there isn’t one?

That’s a caricature of course, and I’m not for a second arguing that we shouldn’t use the social web in HE. For a start I don’t think we have any choice as it isn’t going to go away, and in any case as the book shows, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. But I do wonder how we might introduce it to students, and how we might encourage a properly critical approach. I suspect, although I don’t yet have any evidence of this, that a study of the bibliographies in student papers would show a much higher percentage of traditional books and journal articles, than of (say) Wikipedia pages and YouTube videos. If I’m right about that, and let me repeat that I have no statistically significant evidence for such a claim, it then raises the issue of whether students are discouraged by academics from using these resources.  Of course, we want all our students to use academically rigorous and (preferably) peer reviewed resources, but if we accept the constructivist arguments that learning is an active process, not a passive one we also want them to share their learning, through projects like “Student as Producer”, but also more generally. Anyone know of any major projects or courses where students get credit for sharing their work, as well as for producing it?

Lecture Capture

I’ve been getting more and more interested in “lecture capture” systems of late. These are systems that record a lecture on video, “chunk” it into sections and stream it to a virtual learning environment such as Blackboard. Clearly, this has the potential to go some way beyond the current practice of posting a set of PowerPoint slides on Blackboard, and leaving it at that. Of course, some colleagues at Lincoln have been experimenting with recording lectures, but the need to install appropriate software, marry audio and slides, secure recording equipment, and find a place to post it, mean that this is unlikely to be sustainable on an institutional scale.

What is interesting about lecture capture systems is that they don’t require a great investment in hardware. Panopto, for example, simply makes use of existing computers, web cams and microphones, and the quality of the end product is apparently quite good. (Although, I have to say the sound quality on their demonstration videos was dreadful on my PC, which didn’t inspire confidence.) This post though, isn’t about the technology or the cost, important though those matters are, but more about the pedagogical implications. I have a feeling that many colleagues will be rather nervous at the idea of recording lectures. Surely, they will ask, if students know that the lecture is recorded, they won’t come at all. Not only that, once the lecture is in the can as it were, why would the University continue to employ them?

Well, I could give a flippant answer, and point out that any teacher who can be replaced by a machine probably should be, but I suspect that would not be helpful. So here’s some evidence from the sector.
At Aberystwyth, as of Winter 2010, there were more than 18 different modules using Panopto… A student survey conducted in December 2009 found that students view Panopto as a great tool for reviewing course material and studying for exams.

At Northampton, the first two departments to trial Panopto were the Business School and the School of Health. Lecturers and tutors got involved and were surprised at how easy Panopto was to use. They also loved the fact that it integrated seamlessly with Blackboard. Di Stoncel, Principal Lecturer in the School of Education, made a recording of a guest speaker, which was then broadcast to students, with great success. She said “I have found it to be very useful and easier to use than I expected…It is unobtrusive and has opened up several opportunities which have enhanced the student experience.

Admittedly, the above examples are taken from Panopto’s own publicity material, but at a recent meeting at Loughborough (which uses a different system, Echo360) several speakers claimed that attendance had gone up at lectures, student satisfaction was increased, and, (probably something of a by product) the sartorial standards of teaching staff had dramatically increased! The main issue was simply ensuring that lecturers stayed within the camera’s viewpoint.

While I haven’t looked at this in any detail, I noticed that both Panoptico and Echo360 seem to have open APIs, which suggests that we might be able to do all sorts of interesting things with the data they generate. By “we” of course, I mean “people who know about this sort of thing”.

So, I don’t think lecture capture is necessarily anything to be afraid of. Clearly, further investigation is needed, something I propose to do. There’s an event in London next month, which I plan to attend, and if I am able to do so, will blog about it. So watch this space.

Blackboard v Moodle

And while I’m in blogging mode, I thought this comparison of Blackboard and Moodle, effectively the two leading VLEs in the sector, was interesting. Of course it’s only one case, but it suggests while both seem adequate to the job, Blackboard seems to be somewhat ahead on ease of use. That’s quite significant, since a VLE won’t be used at all if colleagues find it difficult to use.

Personally, I’ve no strong feelings one way or the other about which VLE we should use, if indeed we should use one at all. I do think the framework that VLEs provide is quite helpful, especially if one is not a particularly confident user of technology, but we certainly shouldn’t be confined by them. If there’s a product that does something better than Blackboard, (or Moodle for that matter) and we can resource it, and it’s universally accessible, (as far as that’s possible with any technology) then we shouldn’t discourage anyone from using it.

Staff Details page in Blackboard 9.1

Seems I’ve let my description of the functionality of Blackboard 9.1 slip a little bit. (Well, we’re waiting for a decision from the Infrastructure committee, on whether we can go ahead with the upgrade this year, and I am quite busy with other things. That’s my excuse anyway).

Nevertheless, Blackboard 9 won’t go away, and I have been asked to demonstrate it for a committee this afternoon, so I thought it worth adding another bit of “What’s the difference” to the blog. This is actually a very minor thing, but it took me a while to work it out, so it might be useful to record it. I was trying to add a “staff details” page, because I think it’s quite useful to identify staff to students and let them know when we’re available for consultation.

Now, the staff details page has always presented problems for those who use Blackboard less frequently, because it’s a tool page, rather than a content area. That’s a bit unintuitive if you ask me, since it only contains content. However, that’s the way Blackboard have designed it, so we’re stuck with it!

Anyway when I tried to add a tool link, I looked in vain for the “staff details” tool in the drop down list. It’s still there though – they’ve just renamed it “Contacts”, which I suppose is fair enough, since you might want to list an entire class in there, or people who are not staff, but whom students may need to contact. Still, if all you wanted to do was to post a list of staff, you don’t seem to be able to change the header on the page which insists on displaying the word “Contacts”. Of course, it may be that I haven’t found out how to do that yet, but while I’m on this, I would really like the ability to change, or remove the header on modules on the course home page, which again, doesn’t seem to be possible.

Blackboard 9.1 Blogs and Journals

The blog feature has, according to Blackboard  been upgraded in version 9.1, and a new feature, journals, added. It’s not immediately clear what the difference between them is. Blackboard’s own documentation says this

A journal is an on-going reflection or record of events by an individual or set of individuals. A blog is a commentary by an individual or set of individuals that is for public consumption and comment

It seems to me though that “reflection” and “commentary” are subjective terms and it would be perfectly possible to use a blog to comment, and journal for reflection. It appears that it is possible, despite the above to make a blog “public” in the sense that other course users can see it, and it is also possible to make a journal “private”.

“Public” and “private” are also slightly loose terms, since neither a blog or journal can be made available from within Blackboard to the outside world.

More seriously, on the test server, it doesn’t appear to be possible to create an individual blog, that is  a blog which is only visible to the student and his or her instructor. In their documentation, Blackboard do claim that it is possible to do this, so it will be important to confirm that this feature is actually available on the live version should we decide to go ahead.  Journals, it is implied, are semi-public in that they are always visible to all course members, but again the documentation contradicts itself by claiming

Individual journals allow students to record their Course experiences and what they are learning. These thoughts can be a private communication between a student and the instructor, or shared with everyone in the course. Journal entries can be commented on by the author and the instructor. Others are able to read public journals, but they cannot comment on them.

That doesn’t really make a lot of sense since if everyone’s able to read them, I don’t quite how see how the thoughts can be a private communication!

A blog entry
a blog entry

Looking at what I can actually see, the main difference between blogs and journal seems to be one of formatting.  The journal entry has a sort of “torn page” look, which is nice, but as far as I can see, largely pointless. Blackboard also claim that students can decorate their individual blogs with an avatar, which, if they used a photo of themselves might help tutors to recognise their students more quickly. That’s actually something whose value should not be underestimated since I think it is important for tutors to be able to match names to faces quickly.  However, since I couldn’t set up an individual student blog, I couldn’t test this claim either.

A journal entry
A journal entry

So in conclusion, I’m not really in a position to say much about this aspect of the upgrade. It’s nice that Blackboard have seen the importance of reflective spaces for students, and that they are apparently committed to providing them. While this has sounded quite negative it is the case that the version of Blackboard we have on test is (evidently) not fully functional. Furthermore, I haven’t seen noticed any complaints about the blogs/journals on cross sector mailing lists, so my worries here may be unfounded. Of course, that may be because there are better blogging tools, such as WordPress, out there, and no-one is using the Blackboard versions.

Collaborate to compete?

I’ve taken the title of this post from a recently published report to HEFCE from the Online Learning Task Force. You can read it here. The report argues for greater collaboration between universities and the private sector in developing on-line distance learning courses.   The basis for such a belief is that

The HE sector has been talking about the potential of on-line learning for well over ten years. (para 1.12, p4)

the implication being that talking isn’t the same as doing and that very little progress has actually been made. (No argument about that here!) The report then goes on to look at some case studies of successful private/public collaboration, some of which are in fact, very interesting.  There is clearly some good practice in terms of  getting information to students, clarity about what is offered, and who is doing the teaching. BPP’s offering for example, appears to be a reasonably well designed, professional looking web site.

The issue that I think the report largely misses,  is the relatively narrow curriculum that the private sector seems willing to support. There are fairly obvious reasons for that. Here’s a quotation I found the other day from an article by a US writer, Alan Levine

Higher Education an appealing investment for the private sector. Not only is it perceived as troubled, and slow to change, but it also generates an enormous amount of cash, and its market is increasing and growing globally. “Customers”, better known as students make long term purchases lasting 2-4, or even more years, thereby providing a very dependable cash flow and revenue stream. Enrolment in HE is counter cyclical, which is very unusual in a business

You can read the article in full here.  Following Levine’s logic to the end though it seems to me that there is actually a rather limited incentive for the private sector to get involved in Higher Education. It is only likely to do so where the market is actually for training and there are profits to be made.  If you go back to BPP’s web site their slogan is “Professional Education: Developing your career”, and you will look in vain for courses in History, Art, Classics, English, or even modern languages. Not that there is anything wrong with developing your career of course. But I’m not sure that an economy where everyone’s a tax lawyer is likely to be terribly sustainable.

Where I think the report is valuable, is that it is quite clear that the failure of HE to advance distance learning is not really a technological problem. I’ve been around educational technology long enough to be convinced that sitting around waiting for the next upgrade of Blackboard, or Sharepoint won’t make it happen. (Neither for that matter will replacing one system with another.)  If you want e-learning to happen, then it’s got to be about changing the mind set of the people who use it. So the way Moodle  (or whatever) handles assessments isn’t the way you like to do it? Well, frankly, if one wants to bring about change, I think one does have to be prepared to compromise a little bit.

I am aware that the competition referred to in the report’s title is between UK higher education and the HE systems of competitor countries, but I’m not sure that’s quite how it will play out. I suppose, what I’m getting at here, is that if we can’t bring about this kind of change, then the private sector is going to come in and we won’t be collaborating to compete with other countries, but rather  Universities will end up collaborating to be absorbed into a very different, and I think much less universal, higher education system.

Blackboard 9.1 Assignments

Here’s the next instalment in my ongoing review of the functionality of Blackboard 9.1. Today I thought I’d have a look at the assignments feature, since there is a lot of interest in electronic submission of work across the University.

There are some improvements in assignment handling, in  the new version of Blackboard, without, as far as I can see any loss of features, at least not of features that we use.  The biggest change is that instructors now have the ability to set assessments for groups. That means two things. First different groups can be given different assignments, although, technically that can be done in our current version by using the adaptive release tool. More interestingly the instructor can decide whether they would like the students to submit a single piece of work on behalf of the whole group. (Some time saving potential there!). If this approach is taken, the instructor still has the choice of giving each student an individual grade, or awarding the same grade to the whole group. Of course a group can still be set up so that each individual member of the group has to submit an individual piece of work, although, if an instructor chooses to do this,  the option to give a single grade to the whole group is still available . Quite how this would be managed remains to be seen, but the technology will support it.

A nice feature when setting up group assignments is that once a student is assigned to a group, they can’t be assigned accidentally to other groups (their name disappears from the list of potential members). This can be turned off though, if an instructor wishes to have students in more than one group.  Similarly, by default, group assessments are only visible to members of the group.

Another additional feature is the addition of an option to allow multiple submissions, each of which can be graded. While this may seem to create extra work, there is something to be said for asking to see drafts of student work, if only because it can highlight obvious errors early on, and even detect obvious plagiarism. It’s also quite good practice for students to draft, and redraft their work, and this option would seem to provide some incentive for them to do so. There is also a submission history. While students have always been able to add comments to their submission, all these comments are preserved, so instructors can check back to see how far a students work has improved over the course of the assessment process.

There are some changes to the instructors view of a student’s submission, as illustrated here.

Instructors view of the student grade page
Instructors view of the student grade page

This appears to be cosmetic, in that the long page offered by version 8, has been replaced by a neater, tabbed appearance, each tab linking to different parts of the page.  There are also buttons each of which links to an activity that the instructor may want to do, such as actually mark the work.  Blackboard are also promising a feature which will allow instructors to mark work online, (that is, without needing to print it out)  and although they have demonstrated it to user groups,  this feature  is not available for the moment.