Is It Plagiarism or Collaboration?

| January 23, 2014 | 22 Comments
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By Jennifer Carey

It’s an open secret in the education community. As we go about integrating technology into our schools, we are increasing the risk and potential for plagiarism in our tradition-minded classrooms.

In fact, a recent PEW research study found that while educators find technology beneficial in teaching writing skills, they feel it has also led to a direct increase in rates of plagiarism and infringement of intellectual property rights. In my recent article about using Google Drive as a system for students to write and submit work, many of the readers who commented expressed their concern that students would use such a tool to “peek” at their peers’ work and perhaps use it for “inspiration.”

These concerns lead us to an interesting discussion about collaboration and plagiarism in the classroom. It’s true that tools such as blogging, social media, Google Drive, and DropBox (among others) allow for faster and easier communication and collaboration – skill sets that many educators and business leaders have identified as valuable and important today. But when does collaboration cross the line into plagiarism, out in the digital frontier of education?

In the balance, does plagiarism make these tools more problematic than they are useful?

An Interesting Dilemma

We want students to do “group work,” to collaborate, and to discuss. However, we have very specific realms in which we want this to happen: the group assignment, the in-class discussion, studying for exams, etc. At the same time, many of us want to put up barriers and halt any collaboration at other times (during assessments, for example). When collaboration takes place during assessment, we deem it plagiarism or cheating, and technology is often identified as the instrument that tempts students into such behavior.

This leads to a broader and more provocative question. Should we ever stymie collaboration among our students? We live in a collaborative world. It is rare in a job, let alone life, that individuals work in complete isolation – with lack of assistance or contributions from anyone else. Perhaps as educators, it’s time to reassess how we want students to work.

Instead of fighting a losing battle (as my grandmother would put it – “You can’t nail jello to a wall!”) by trying to ban any type of interaction with students online, what if we incorporated collaboration into our lessons and our assessments?

Transforming “Cheating” Into Collaboration?

While students should not be copying and pasting somebody else’s content, at the same time it’s engaging and fruitful for them to be able to discuss assignments and enlist assistance from their peers across the board. For example, students who are working on a research essay on topics that they’ve chosen, can share their work with their peers, looking for feedback, input, or guidance. This is not cheating, rather it is collaboration. It should be open and above board – transparent – but this is exactly how they should grow as learners.

Using tools like Google Drive, students can more easily collaborate across distances and with conflicting schedules. Better yet, teacher can see their collaborative efforts using the “revision history” function of Google Drive (Go to File → See Revision History), and can track not only quality, but quantity. (See the post on Google Docs and research.)

We have all heard students complain that a member of the group has “contributed nothing.” Now, there’s a method to verify. While student A may have contributed fewer comments or changes, those contributions may have been especially meaningful and balanced. Likewise, if student B has never logged into the system, the teacher knows this well before the project is complete and can follow up and discuss with that student the necessities of participation.

But What About the Test?

Outside of project work or written papers, we still have the formal quiz and test assessment. Many of us are required to do testing in our classes (in the form of mid-terms or finals). This does not mean that the anti-collaboration walls must go up.

Now, we ask students not to discuss test questions or we guard them in the fear that those questions will leak out via cellphone snapshots — or that a student might Google the answer. Perhaps it’s time to reassess how we write our exams. If you can Google the answer, how good is the question?

Do we want students to simply memorize and regurgitate information? Is this the type of learning that we value in the 21st century? Or do we want them to think, assess, reason, and verbalize (vocally or in written form) their processes and ideas? I would argue that the latter is better not only in assessment but in overall skills.

A student may produce an entirely wrong answer, but if how they got there was through logic, reasonable assumption, educated guessing (not just plain old “guessing”) – and they were effective in communicating that process – then there is evidence of learning that I can take into account. I’m not left to figure out what they DID know from a T/F or multi-choice “wrong” answer.

Perhaps instead of focusing our concerns on technology as a wonderful aid to plagiarizers, we should focus on its ability to foster creativity and collaboration, and then ask ourselves (we are the clever adults here) how we can incorporate those elements into our formalized assessments.

Unfortunately, yes, there will always be those students who want to cut corners, find the easy way, and cheat to get out of having to do the hard work. (See my post on combating plagiarism.) But a significant majority of students are inherently inquisitive: they want to learn and do better by engaging and thinking, not memorizing and fact checking. It’s up to us to appeal to that inquisitiveness.

The reality is that rote memorization is largely becoming obsolete and not a reflection of the needs we have in our citizens or our workforce. Instead, we need to get busy fostering creative and developmental skills that will allow them to achieve through their skills as collaborators and creative makers and shapers of information and ideas.

This is the power of the new technologies that are populating the digital frontier of education.

Jennifer Carey is Director of Academic Technology at the Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove, Florida.  This post originally appeared on Powerful Learning Blog.


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  • Jennifer Carey

    Thanks for sharing this article! I’m excited to hear other’s thoughts.

    • tbarseghian

      It’s a pleasure Jennifer!

  • Gwen

    I think there are times for collaboration and there are times for individual work. Some personalities dominate discussions and group work and then you don’t hear equally wonderful ideas of those will quieter personalities.

    Consider this:

    I definitely agree that we need people who can think their way through problems and figure out where they can go to get credible help should they need it.

    • Gwen

      Sorry for the typo… those WITH quieter personalities.

    • Jennifer Carey

      Thanks Gwen! You’re right that balance is key. Sometimes we want to individually assess, at other times it’s a broader dynamic. What I like about technological tools today is that we can use them to individualize group assessment in multiple environments – students that are uncomfortable being vocal in a group may be more prone to write, research contributions are marked, and you can view the work as a collection rather than as a product.

  • Candice Smith

    I believe teachers need to know their assignment designs well and keep in mind ways that some student may act as ‘free riders’ taking advantage of their peers work.. With that knowledge teachers can access how they want to use the technology where to add barriers and where to allow sharing.. Plagiarism has become easier for teachers to detect through tools if it concerns ‘copy of data’.. But where there is a ‘copy of idea’ i think to a negligible extent a student still learns something..

    • Jennifer Carey

      Good points Candice. Do you think that more ‘open ended’ projects would be a good way to combat this?

      • Candice Smith

        Yes i think open ended projects work best to enlighten creativity but at the same time teachers should master how to access the results of the student learning..

  • geoffcain

    It is actually not an “open secret” that we are increasing the risk of plagiarism and cheating. The research shows that there is no substantial difference between the levels of cheating online or off:

    The biggest difference is the perception of more cheating. I agree though, assignment and test design is very important which is why instructional designers are critical to the development of online programs:

    • Jennifer Carey

      I agree that technology does make it easier to check – looking up various journal articles to find the one a student “borrowed” from was more arduous than googling a sentence.
      Thanks for sharing the online program link, I will check it out. I taught an online class one semester. I wasn’t particularly concerned about academic dishonesty but did not like the disconnect with students. However, I’ve seen some promising trends and changing practices to address this issue.

  • Jeremy Lu

    I think there’s more to just file sharing in collaboration. There’s an important lesson for students to learn about the 3 most important views in a room.. your’s mine and ours.

    The ability for people to discern, make decisions, but then work together at the end of the day is part and parcel of the collective learning and collaborative process. There does need to be some way for educators to look at the collective, as well as the individual efforts of any one person within a team around and exercise. I do agree that technology moves us part way towards this.

    Thought this was a pretty interesting lesson plan that allows individual students to create responses, share them anonymously, vote and prioritise on ideas. The reports then allow teachers to see what the whole class did, as well as drill down to individual students.

    Really good way to see how each student contributed as part of the whole group. For those of your who like to assess individual as well as manage group activities.

    • Jennifer Carey

      Thanks for sharing the lesson plan, excited to check it out.

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  • Diane Trout

    Wow! I LOVE this: “If you can Google the answer, how good is the question?” This is so true. Like your article states, we don’t want students just to memorize information. They need to have a deeper understanding of the curriculum and not just scratching the surface. If students are finding this information on their own, they have a better chance of absorbing the information, making the learning experience more authentic.

    • Jennifer Carey

      Thank you for your thoughts Diane. You are right that we need to foster an environment of deep and critical thinking. I hope you will share your successes in this arena!

      • S Baker

        Sometimes a task requires complex thinking but the information short-circuiting the thinking is available by Googling–such as when I want my students to show that they have learned how to read Shakespeare’s language by paraphrasing a passage and discussing the themes evident in it. My view is that these are very appropriate tasks on which to assess a student, but it’s all widely available on the web.

  • stansbuj

    What about students that use each others gmail accounts when they are collaborating? That would render Google’s “revision history” less useful for determining who contributed what.

    I just read a Wired article about writing in the digital age. It said that people tend to write much better when there is an audience that will be reading it. This would tend to support collaboration.

    • Jennifer Carey

      I am always transparent with my students – I show them that I am looking for their group contributions and show how I will be monitoring that. If they know that is how they will be receiving a grade, then they *want* to ensure that you can tell who did what. It’s part of framing the assignment.
      You’re right that people do write better for an audience. It’s one of the many arguments in favor of blogging! Thank you for sharing the Wired article!

  • Holli

    Group work, using case studies, has
    been part of nursing school education for a long time. This collaboration is
    exactly the kind of interdisciplinary teamwork we hope to see our graduates
    take into the workplace. If they take full advantage of the technology
    available to them even better!

  • Mark

    Great article. I use GoogleDocs routinely in my writing class and build assignments that begin with a shared document and then narrow to an individual one. You make great points about using revision history to see how work develops and also to see how each student is contributing to shared work. GoogleDocs also supports interactions with students in real time using the comment and chat features of the platform making teachers collaborators as well, making the platform especially powerful for formative assessment that is NOT for a mark. Thanks so much for your balanced contribution to an often stilted discussion of “cheating” online.

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  • Mike Johnson

    Plagiarism has been the recipient of a lot of attention in academic
    institutions. Especially, in the current times, it has been given a lot
    of attention and the consequences of committing plagiarism have become
    quite severe and extreme