Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 20 November 2012 15:47
In these day, when writing a research paper is as easy as a Google search followed by a few cut-and-paste commands, local educators are turning to an Internet tool to help monitor the academic integrity of their students and improve their writing.
With a database of more than 20 billion Web pages, 220 million student papers and millions of articles, the sophisticated algorithms harnessed by Turnitin.com can indicate the percentage of “original work” in a student paper in mere seconds.
“You upload (the student project), it digitally reads it and then produces what it calls an origirnality report,” said Frank Johnson, vice president of academic affairs at Tabor College. “It will show with color coding exactly what in the parameters of the algorithms the similarities were of the paper and the source.”
Johnson became acquainted with the program several years ago as a classroom professor at a previous institution.
This is the first year the program is being used at Tabor. At Hillsboro High School, a few instructors have been using it to varying degrees the past five years.
“I use it for all of my English classes on essays and research papers,” said Darrel Knoll, an English instructor at HHS. “It helps me by identifying papers that have a high tendency toward plagiarized materials, which then allows me to do more investigation.”
Bob Woelk, another HHS English instructor, said he doesn’t use the program as much as he could—even though he largely was responsible for bringing it to the USD 410.
“I looked at it and thought it might be something that would help us because in the past we’d just have to go on a gut instinct: ‘This doesn’t feel right, it’s not really how a student should write,’” he said.
Johnson said plagiarism is “rampant” in higher education.
“I don’t want to say it’s rampant at Tabor, but we have issues at Tabor,” he said. “From small, private to large, public colleges—across the sector—it is an issue that some would say is getting out of control.”
Part of the problem, he said, is that some students come to college from schools that don’t see plagiarism as unethical.
“There are well-founded facts that in the K-12 system it is not uncommon in some places for students to be schooled in how to plagiarize,” Johnson said. “The difference there is they don’t see it as wrong. That’s the issue.”
Clarifying the ethical trespass is part of the mission of a good education.
“It’s stealing—you can’t steal someone’s idea,” Johnson said. “You can use it, always and gladly, but with attribution. But not everyone in the entire education field sees it that way.”
At HHS, cheating and plagiarism are explained and addressed, Woelk said, but that doesn’t mean teachers can prevent them.
“Bottom line is, society can’t keep us from doing illegal things if we really want to,” Woelk said. “We can’t stop students 100 percent from cheating if they’re really determined to cheat. So it comes down to personal integrity.
“Quite frankly, some kids have it and some kids don’t.”
Knoll said he believes with time and training, most students understand the boundaries.
“The older they get, the more it seems they understand that it is not only cheating, but detrimental to their reputation and character if they participate in it,” he said.
Johnson said Tabor doesn’t have a “gotcha” attitude in regard to plagiarism.
“While we will deal with the realities if a student does plagiarize, the intent is to help change the culture and to be proactive and redemptive in a practical way,” he said.
“It’s a point of fact that Tabor has facilitated more than one conversation between a professor and a student,” he added. “We tell students in no uncertain terms that this behavior is wrong professionally, and it’s wrong ethically, and we will not allow that here without consequence.”
Tabor addresses the topic of academic integrity in its catalog and website. When a first-time violation is discovered, the class professor is the first to step in.
“A professor has full discretion to do anything—from nothing to immediately failing the student for the course,” Johnson said.
“In the majority of instances, the professor will deal with the matter, especially if there’s question about intent,” he added. “Some students truly don’t know that to not use quotation marks (around a direct quotation) is bad form.”
In some instances, the professor takes care of the issue and Johnson never hears about it.
“We do have an incident report form they generally will file,” he said. “My office will then send a letter to the student, acknowledging the receipt of that form and determine if additional sanctions are to be levied.”
But a second offense by the same student generates a firm response from Johnson’s office.
“I take an old-school, hard-line approach,” he said. “The student has self-selected suspension from the college, is my official stance.”
Even so, Johnson said his office continues to explore how best to bring grace and mercy to the process.
Toward that end, students have a right to appeal. Their case will be heard before a committee elected by the faculty that also includes two administrators and two students—a “true community hearing,” according to Johnson.
Woelk said using Turnitin in his classroom is not just about catching cheaters.
“Turnitin does not tell you a student is cheating,” he said. “What it tells you is this information is not original.”
Woelk said he expects varying degrees of unoriginal work, depending on the assignment and the writing experience of the student.
“For a research paper, I would not be surprised with 30 to 40 percent lighting up and saying ‘this is not original’ because you’re taking maybe paragraphs and certainly sentences and using them,” he said.
“If they start showing up at 70, 80 or 90 percent, they may have legitimately documented those sources, but then I’ll start saying to the kids, ‘There needs to be less of your source and more of you in there,” he said.
“So it’s a teaching tool in that way.”
Another way Woelk works to reduce plagiarism is to design assignments in such a way to make it less useful to copy and paste someone else’s perspective.
“I try to make an assignment so kids can say what they want to say, but I would still expect a certain percentage (of unoriginal work) because they’ll go back to the text to supply quotes to support what they’re saying,” he said. “So a zero or 1 percent is not a good sign either.”
Woelk said classroom experience is as important as new technology like Turnitin.
“With 20-some years of experience, I can tell that something just isn’t right,” he said. “So then Turnitin is a really good tool. Otherwise, it’s just a kid’s word against my word.”
But even experience has limits, Woelk admitted.
“Quite honestly, a couple of students have fooled me,” he said. “I remember one case where I looked at it and said, ‘This can’t be original.’ I ran it through (Turnitin), and it helped me out in that way because the assignment really was original and well done.”
Though the use of Turnitin at USD 410 is limited currently to a few teachers, Woelk believes its use will increase as the district transitions to the new common core standards.
“What’s going to happen is that more and more teachers—everyone from the P.E. teacher to the math teacher and the English teachers—are going to be required to have students write,” he said.
“When that happens, they’re going to need a tool like this.”