FINESSING THE ONLINE TEACHING/LEARNING ENVIRONMENT: STRUCTURING AND EVALUATING GROUP WORK, RESHAPING THE RESEARCH PROJECT, AND MANAGING PLAGIARISM
The presenter teaches in the online environment via Golden Gate University's Cybercampus (cybercampus.ggu.edu), which features WASC-accredited online degrees and certificates in areas of law, public service, business and technology. There continue to be many issues concerning pedagogy and course delivery in online environments, some old and some new.
The word "finessing" in the title is used because of my presupposition in this writing: I'm assuming an audience of people who have some experience teaching online and who have presumably addressed basic online course delivery and configuration issues. We're now interested in some of what can be optimistically called the finer points of online teaching, such as making online groups work effectively, reconfiguring traditional assignments for online use and that old bugaboo, plagiarism.
HELPING GROUPS WORK EFFECTIVELY
Groupwork supposedly replicates the social nature of the real world, and in the various work environments students encounter. The opportunities and shortfalls of groups are well known, especially from a teaching perspective: how does the teacher manage groups? How can we assure equitable assignments, and participation?
From the student point of view, there are questions such as How do I get a fair grade for participating in a group? How can the teacher give a "group grade" if some of the members of my group didn't do the work? How can the teacher know how much work group members have really performed?
These are all legitimate concerns, and even in a real-time classroom situation they are difficult to manage. My solution to this in the online environment has been to configure one assignment in a Management Information Systems class in the following manner:
White Paper Assignment Assignment
Students are grouped early in the course and asked to present papers (5+ pages with attached references) in public online fora at a predetermined date later in the semester. The procedure is anecdotally successful, with most student commenting that they consider the activity to be as successful or more successful than other online group activities undertaken in other classes. In addition, the papers can be downloaded and used as resource and informational material.
The Online Environment: each group should have an online work space, which may be public or private to the teacher and the group members. My experience with group workspace privacy is that (at least so far) it doesn't matter either way to students. In Golden Gate University's Cybercampus, there is a conference environment used for general course communication. The instructor configures work group spaces, used for group member communication as well as presentation of the final work.
Objective: a primary objective is to facilitate a group work/ experience for students in the distance learning classroom, that provides an electronic social setting, and whose environment is used for doing useful work. The name "White Paper" is used to indicate a business-oriented short paper, used to provide timely information on a contemporary or timely topic to colleagues. Students configure these White Papers in response to a hypothetical real world problem.
Although the White Paper is expected to utilize research sources, for our class purposes these sources can be listed but not necessarily referenced, lessening the emphasis on proper formatting or citation procedures. The final paper must incorporate or at least reference findings from research, with some degree of analysis integrated into the paper.
Evaluation: the structure of this assignment should be reasonably flexible; emphasis can be on problem solving and critical thinking skills in addition to good writing, but the teacher can avoid evaluations based on correct use of reference materials and formatting.
Each person in the group receives the same grade. Points need to be sufficient to encourage participation for grade-conscious students, but not so hefty as to seriously affect the individual's final grade. This is important in promoting and maintaining buy-in to the online group assignments.
Peer Evaluation: This is an important component. Classmates are expected to evaluate each other's work using the same criteria as the instructor will use; criteria are presented with the assignment, early on, so that in addition to being grading criteria, they are descriptors of successful participation in the activity.
Participation: participation in the assignment is a course requirement, i.e., no participation, no final grade. This is different than evaluation. To date across 5 online versions of the class, all students have either participated, or dropped the course for other causes.
Analysis of the assignment: the instructor grades on a 50/50 split. 50 percent of the individual's grade is based on overall paper quality, and 50 percent on other group members' perceptions of participation and contribution.
Anecdotally, this assignment is highly successful with students. In a class of 30, 6-8 short papers on contemporary topics can be presented, which greatly increases the information store of participants. Given that many or our students are working professionals, the level of quality and applied information in many papers is substantial, and is often more applicable to the work environment than course text information and general research materials.
Since the projects are completed and presented just past the midpoint of the course, they provide classmates with material that can enlighten research or applied projects, that can be used in other classes, and that supports examination information.
RECONFIGURING TRADITIONAL ASSIGNMENTS FOR ONLINE USE: THE RESEARCH PROJECT
The White Paper assignment above is an example of a traditional assignment modified to work within the online environment. Another assignment that can be reshaped for online use is the research project.
The research project presents a particularly difficult challenge in the online course. Students have access to endless amounts of information, all of which can be cut/pasted into digital documents and made to appear somewhat original. One of my tactics has been to change the focus and direction of the assignment in two directions: one is to include the use of a problem-solving approach, and the other is to include elements of scenario planning. In both cases, it is expected that students will interpret and apply findings, rather than just present research on a topic.
The Research Project that Solves a Problem
Objective: the objective of the assignment is to use the research paper as an opportunity to solve an applied problem in a business setting. The research becomes an important piece of the work, but is not the focus of the project.
Structure of the Project: under this schema, papers no longer have titles such as "Virtual Private Networks." They are now titled something like "Security considerations in using Virtual Private Networks at XYZ Corporation." To be successful, the paper must describe XYZ, discuss a particular problem to be solved by the technology, and then in the course of the writing, discuss the technology relative to solving the problem. The paper includes an application discussion and/or action plan, which usually concludes the paper.
The Research Project that Includes Scenario Planning
In graduate level research projects, students are expected to include a scenario planning section, making predictions about the environment (with its now-solved problem) one year, three years, and five years from the present. Various success indicators are expected to be included, and part of the instructor's evaluation of the project has to do with the students' efforts to make reasonable, thoughtful suggestions using the scenario approach.
This restructuring of assignments is being applied in online and traditional classes, and is proving beneficial to students. However, they are initially resistant to it. They prefer to write "about" topics, rather than interpreting, evaluating and applying findings and practices to real/hypothetical situations.
The instructor should model expectations in all course materials, and in discussions of the project. Have several checkpoints during the semester, at which students present materials, or discuss projects according to criteria, with the instructor and/or fellow students in group settings. My courses have checkpoints at weeks 2, 5, 9 (presentation of annotated bibliography) and 12. At week 12, the paper should be in a reasonably highly developed state, and the instructor will quickly see whether the work is progressing as per expectations.
Plagiarism is the pig-in-the-python of academia, highly visible yet endlessly undigested. We all see more plagiarized papers than we know, and in the interests of time and service to our better students and our programs, allow many to pass that we do recognize.
We have never known what to do with plagiarism. Many of us remember the days when writing a sentence fragment was the highest crime possible in essays, and merited an instant "F". In the same way, we may come from the generation for whom writing a plagiarized paper was considered akin to robbing a store.
Today's students, with their pragmatic attitudes toward schoolwork, and with their 'new best friend' the Internet, are giving us fits, with research papers lifted in whole or in part from the many, many content sources on the Internet. And there are the term paper mills: students can, for 10-30$, download a reasonably well-written research paper on virtually any topic . . . in minutes.
The issue may complicated by institutional distance from the problem. In these days of a service-oriented rather than educational approach toward our students, there may be subtle yet real pressure for instructors to deal with issues such as plagiarism themselves, and not force such matters toward institutional confrontations.
All these tensions often come to a head in the online environment, where we may never see our students, nor hear their voices. While some students and instructors require personal contact even in online environments, many do not, meaning that our students' voices become abstracted text presented via homework, groupwork, midterm and research paper contributions. Who are the people attached to these names? We don't know.
In the online environment, this question becomes, Who has written this examination? Proctored exams are a reality in my educational situation at our Cybercampus. Proctoring works well for examinations, and provides some assurance that the person registered for the class is writing the exam. Proctoring provides the comfort level (read 'quality assurance standards') that common sense and accreditation bodies require, but what of the research project?
Assigned early in the semester, discussed in absentia throughout, yet expected to show up in full dress and with good behavior at the end of the course, a traditional paper simply requires a lot of energy to teach about. For the most part, we prefer to believe that students know how to write research papers already. Matters of formatting, citing sources, intellectual honesty and ethical considerations have been taught in some previous English class, so students presumably know how to cite and write.
In our heart of hearts, we know better. Our experience, coupled with the endless stream of poorly written, uninvolved and uninvolving papers we receive each term may still not be enough to make us change our practices. The form, function and intellectual endeavor expected in the research project should be at least reviewed if not taught in each class, but who has time, what with all that pesky course content to be gotten through?
Fast forward to the online environment, and those previously mentioned students we don't see or talk to. We know how they write on homework assignments and on the midterm; some sense of person does emerge through those words. What do we do when we receive those end-of-term papers that are in a voice foreign to the writer, but common to the cribbed paper? Here's what I've done and am doing. I hope these experiences are helpful for you.
* Configure assignments so as to reduce reliance on plagiarized content; see the previous sections.
* Discuss plagiarism and the availability of online and research paper mill papers openly. Make students aware that you're aware.
* Discuss plagiarism and the school's approach to it in the syllabus. As your contract with the students, plagiarism and the official response to it should be clearly stated in the syllabus.
* Require digital copies of coursework, with the intention that they may be submitted to electronic plagiarism services. Here is the syllabus statement I use:
"In addition to a paper copy of your final research project, submit a digital copy via email to your instructor. Do not use attachments to do this; just cut/paste your research project into the body of an email message. This is a requirement."
I do not mention plagiarism here, but make it clear in discussions and the syllabus that I am aware of the plagiarism problem, that there are consequences, and that the school subscribes to a plagiarism-identification service.
*Subscribe to an online plagiarism service and use it.
Our university subscribes to a service titled TurnItIn.com, also found at Plagiarism.org. For those interested, the Plagiarism.org site offers a free trial. (I have no relationship with these services, other than to use TurnItIn.com).
Services such as this offer identification of plagiarized passages in papers. The teacher or student(s) submit digital copies of the papers to the service by cutting and pasting text into HTML text boxes. After a period of time, about 24 hours, a report is made available.
The report offers several useful pieces of information. First, there is a "degree to which" indicator, indicating via colored icons if any, few, some, or many plagiarized passages have been found.
Next, the instructor may view the paper with referenced passages underlined. These underlines are color coded, and the coding relates to the original source.
Finally, the papers may be viewed with each original source noted, including common underlined areas between the source and the submitted student paper.
Taken together, these views allow a quite complete view into the story of a student paper. If a paper has been plagiarized, several things are clear: plagiarism has occurred, the sources that were used, plagiarized passages, and the extent to which the paper was plagiarized.
Such a program is not foolproof. It's hard to imagine that TurnItIn.com or other such service can search the entire Web/Internet environment for matching text. However, in my use of the service, I've been impressed with the returns.
From a teacher perspective, such services provide powerful tools, made extremely easy to use. Submitting a suspect paper is literally a point and click/cut and paste operation. This removes the tedious search for references that often stymies us from proving plagiarism.
However, other problems have surfaced. The paper that is completely plagiarized presents little problem: we have only to present the incontrovertible evidence. In several instances, I've done this and proposed a conference with the student. In neither case has the student appeared, instead taking the punishment of losing the grade on the paper.
More ticklish situations occur when there is plagiarism that has occurred and the problem is one of improper or ill-used citation procedures. This situation is more difficult to deal with, and returns us to the time-consumption arena. The line between plagiarism and acceptable scholarly prose is drawn in the sand of our use of references, citations and bibliographies.
A completely plagiarized paper calls for a serious response; in my case, I report no score for the assignment. I do not remove the student from the class. I've configured project scores relative to other assignment scores so that a disallowed paper results in no higher than a "C" for the class even if the student was doing "A" work. A student doing "B" work will receive no higher than a "D".
There is yet another situation. I find students, often younger international students, who clearly have no idea of how to create a traditional research paper. I hope that I do not sound naive; students who are plagiarizing are clearly aware in most cases of what they are doing, but in some instances I've come across students who seem to not know what they were expected to do or how to do it in research project assignments. In 2 such cases, I've guided students through rewrites, and allowed the projects to be resubmitted, with lowered grades.
There are many ways to utilize the online environment in ways that encourage interactivity and collegial behavior. The presenter works to fine tune online assignments and activities so as to improve not only the teaching/learning experience, but to positively impact the credibility of the online educational environment. The question of credibility is central to our fellow instructors, our institutions, our accrediting bodies, and our current (and future) students. I hope this discussion has made a contribution to that work.
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