I was in Washington DC last week to attend the D2L Fusion event – Collabco’s first big event in the US, and a big success for us. As it turned out, I picked an astonishing week in politics to be in America’s capital city. Unfolding in front of my eyes on TV was one of the biggest issues that usually only besets higher education – not a hopeful First Lady in waiting. Plagiarism.
Melania Trump stepped up to the lectern at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio and appeared to deliver an address that current First Lady, Michelle Obama gave to the Democratic National Convention back in 2008. Ouch.
There have been endless newspaper column inches comparing the womens’ words and delivering a verdict on whether it was plagiarism (it was), but if nothing else, it highlights an increasing problem that affects our institutions of higher education too. Student plagiarism is on the rise and takes many forms. And because we can access almost anything online these days, it’s all too easy to do. However, armed with the right software it’s also increasingly easy to detect and the digitization of our campuses is a step towards stamping it out permanently.
Software like Turnitin, Urkund and Unplag is helping universities and colleges of higher education crack down on the outright copying of others’ work. There a few types: firstly the direct copying of someone else’s words verbatim – or to use the right technology descriptor – a ‘cut and paste’ job. There really is no grey area here and Melania, or her speechwriters definitely fell foul of this.
Then there’s the altering of a few words in the sentence – this is the ‘find and replace’ of plagiarism, commonly known as mosaic plagiarism, where the odd word has been changed to mask the crime – but often not very well. Melania also fell foul of this.
According to plagiarism experts Turnitin, there is a one in one trillion chance that a sixteen-word phrase has an identical twin anywhere else completely by coincidence. It’s these odds that technology so easily highlights at the touch of a ‘submit’ button.
Then there are students that simply struggle to incorporate desk research and others’ opinions in their own words – their intentions are good, but their technique is fundamentally flawed. This is all part of learning, and something that the digital campus can aid by detecting it early in the student’s academic life, and then teaching them the art of understanding what they’ve read and incorporating it in their own work without outright copying it.
Trumpet the changes.
How can higher education work to change things?
Universities have a duty to teach not just facts and figures but also to teach students how to go about researching topics of study and incorporating their research into their work from their own stand point. They must make their own arguments based upon the facts they read, not simply regurgitate the facts – and especially not verbatim. Technique is important.
Content is increasingly at the centre of our digital world, and whether its music lyrics, intellectual property or academic research – it should be handled responsibly and as an asset that belongs to someone else. Digitization creates the problem in the first place to a degree by providing us with the cut and past function, but it also provides the solution to early detection of copying and a way to learn in our increasingly digital campuses.