Thursday, November 01, 2007

Fight Plagiarism with Creativity

Right now my school is on the verge of a new technology adventure. Next fall we hope to be starting a one-to-one program in our sixth grade, expanding that program to our whole middle school over the next three years. Currently we’re hip deep in implementation meetings and discussions over how we’re going to present the program to parents and how we plan to train our teachers. One of the big concerns is how this new technology is (or isn’t) going to change the way we teach.

If every student has a notebook computer and access to all the information and communication tools that it offers, then our teachers need to be able to design lessons and projects that engage the students and force them not only to find information, but to evaluate it, check it for accuracy and bias, and use it in a meaningful and creative way. We don’t want our teacher training to focus primarily on specific software packages or hardware tools without addressing ways in which they can be used to encourage students’ critical thinking and creativity in core curriculum areas. Otherwise these new notebooks become just a high-tech version of what we’ve always done. The machines just become nothing more than an electronic textbook. Instead of paper worksheets and tests, students will have electronic worksheets and tests and instead of writing their reports on paper they’ll be typing them in a word processor. If students aren’t given opportunities to be creative, the truly creative kids will quickly get over the novelty of the technology and start looking for the quickest, easiest ways possible to give the teacher what they want so they can “be done”. Cheating and plagiarizing begin to look really attractive.

Thinking about all this brought me back to an article I wrote in 2004. (I knew some of this stuff sounded familiar.) I don’t know if the publication is available online so here it is again for your reading pleasure. (Am I plagiarizing from myself now?)

Fight Plagiarism with Creativity (from May 2004)

It’s confession time. We all have our dirty little secrets and this one has been weighing on my conscience for far too many years -- since 5th grade, in fact. I want admit now and confess publicly that most, if not all, of my state report on Oregon was copied from the encyclopedia. It’s not something I’m proud of, but those words scribbled on my paper were not my own. They belonged to the writers and editors of the World Book Encyclopedia. Yes, it’s true. I am a plagiarist.

For 27 years now I have had to live with the guilt that I was given a grade I did not deserve. Although I suspect my teacher probably knew that I had copied my work, I was never confronted about it. It would have been easy for her to prove that I had plagiarized. The encyclopedias were right there in the back of the room. All she would have had to do is look up Oregon and it would be plain that I was passing someone else’s work off as my own. She didn’t, and I have been suffering ever since. (Perhaps that was her intention all along.)

What brought me to this miserable state? Why did I decide to come clean now? Recently a teacher at my school brought me a paper that was allegedly written by one of his students -- two pages, double-spaced, with the student’s name at the top and no cited references whatsoever. “I’m pretty sure this paper was not written by the student.” He explained. “You’re the computer teacher. Do you think you can prove this was copied from the Internet?”

After scanning the paper and noticing several words that even I would need a dictionary to define, I agreed to give it a try. I went to, took the first six words from the student’s second paragraph, and typed them in the keyword search box, putting them in quotes to search for an exact phrase. I could have chosen the first paragraph, but I figured the student might have been smart enough to change the wording of the first sentence. When I clicked “Search”, the first web site on the list caught my eye. I clicked the link and viola! There it was, word for word.

“We got him!” I whispered to myself, with the same exuberance of the Marines who captured Saddam Hussein. I hit the print button to get a hard copy of the evidence, but while I listened to the whir of the inkjet my mind went back to my fifth grade state report. It was so easy to prove that he had plagiarized. My excitement quickly evaporated and was replaced by guilt and remorse.

In my defense, when I copied my report 27 years ago I had to actually read all the material and then write the information word for word. So I was learning about my state as I was copying, right? Using the Internet, this student didn’t even have to read the article. All he had to do was copy, paste, and print. I seriously doubt that any learning about the subject matter occurred at all. It probably took me over an hour to plagiarize my report. This student did it in a matter of minutes. Isn’t technology wonderful?

If the whole point of letting our students use the Internet for educational research is that they actually learn about the subject, then maybe the traditional assignment to “write a report” is not the right approach. It makes plagiarism very tempting. If I can complete my assignment in a matter of minutes, why spend hours writing the same thing in my own words? Recently, I attended a Computer Using Educators conference where Ted McCain, a teacher and speaker for the Thornburg Center for Education offered a different, more creative alternative to report writing. Here is his example.

What if, instead of having your students write a report on Japan, they take on the role of travel agents, with you as their client? You tell them you want to visit several places with historic significance, try eating various local delicacies, and learn about the major industries so your company can do business with them. Your students would then be assigned to write up a travel proposal with the information you requested, along with travel time and weather (so you know what clothes to pack). You could even ask them to suggest several hotels near some of the places you wish to visit and maybe list several different airlines that fly to your destination.

Let’s see your students try to plagiarize an assignment like that. Not only will they learn about Japan, but they will gain “real world” research skills as well. Their task is specific, and their objectives are clear. It may take a little work on your part to create the assignment and develop a scoring rubric for their work, but I’m sure the results will be well worth the effort.

Of course your assignment does not always have to be in the form of a written report. This spring our seventh graders were studying human anatomy. Rather than writing a report, they created Power Point presentations describing how to take care their pet liver, spleen, stomach, etc. In their presentations they explained what “tricks” their pet organ could do, why it is important, and what needs to be done in order to keep it healthy. At the end of the presentation they were also required to have a slide that listed the web pages they used for all their information and pictures. If they did not list the web site it came from, they could not use it. It’s amazing what the kids were able to accomplish because they were motivated and allowed to be creative. Best of all, the work they produced was their own, not something copied from a web page. If you are interested in learning more about this project, you can download a copy of the assignment sheet and scoring rubric at (Thanks to Yvette Stuewe for allowing me to post her assignment sheet.)

It’s been said one of the best ways to keep from sinning is to avoid putting yourself in a situation where you might be tempted. By adding an aspect of creativity to your assignments, not only do you make it difficult for your students to plagiarize, you also provide them with an opportunity to exercise their own creativity. All the while, they are actually learning about the subject, not just copying information.

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