As I try to finish up writing out my reflections on the Coursera course experience so far (previous post was about the "Course Criteria" as defined by Coursera itself), I have to write about the plagiarism, depressing though it may be. I've written about it over at Google+ (and in that way I learned about plagiarism problems over at the Internet History Coursera course also, so it's not just our course), but I see I haven't posted anything here. It's a complex topic; I'll write out here as much as I can stand... if I get too depressed, I'll just have to stop, ha ha.
I first became aware of the plagiarism problem on Tuesday of Week 2, when the Week 2 essays were released for peer review. Before I had even started to read any essays, I saw several discussion threads going at the discussion board about plagiarism. Boy, was that depressing! Also depressing: people were sharing links to some really dreadful online plagiarism checkers and urging "everybody" to use them. Then, it also surfaced that there had been plagiarism in Week 1, also discussed at the discussion board. I had missed those threads, but no surprise there: in the total chaos of the discussion board, it's very easy to miss something, even if it is a topic that would be of interest.
I then started reading the essays assigned to me for review; the first essays I read were definitely better than the first week in terms of the writing, but then I hit a patch of essays written in such poor English as to be almost incomprehensible... and then I hit an essay that was clearly plagiarized. There was an incomprehensible paragraph about the dormouse as a symbol of the proletariat. Well, that was easy to Google and instantly led me to the article that the student had copied, massaged, and not cited. It was a perfect example of "patchwork plagiarism," where the student had mechanically and mindlessly transformed the text (replacing every nth word with a synonym, reversing the order of phrases in a sentence, etc.) in order to defeat plagiarism detection software like Turnitin, but which was still patently plagiarism. A lot like, uh, what lost Fareed Zakaria his job this week (see the NYTimes article for a picture-perfect example of patchwork plagiarism in one of Zakaria's articles... talk about depressing!).
Well, being asked to review an essay that contained plagiarism really floored me. I mean, I had read about it at the discussion board and knew it was out there, but I had hoped the laws of random would protect me. No such luck: the plagiarized essay was the eighth essay I was reading for Week 2 (we are required to read four and encouraged to read more). Well, the plagiarism made me lose my enthusiasm for reading extra essays, that's for sure. Just as I do with my own students, I documented the plagiarism carefully and gave no other comments about the essay because, in my opinion, the plagiarism is a problem that has to be addressed first before it is worthwhile for me to give any other comments. (If this were one of my students, they would receive a zero for that week's assignment and turn in a rewrite for their next week's assignment, something that is very easy to do with the flexible weekly schedule of writing assignments in my classes.)
Then I went back to the discussion board and saw it positively roiling with people expressing strong views all over the spectrum, including quite a few people who said that since this was a free course and not for credit, the plagiarism did not matter. I also saw quite a few people who certainly seemed to be mis-using the plagiarism detection software without a clear understanding of just what plagiarism is and how to document it. Well, I figured that there would be some kind of email from the instructor and/or from the Coursera staff the next day to let us know what to do. At a minimum, I was expecting some helpful information about plagiarism to show up at the class website (links perhaps to online material at the University of Michigan?), a strong recommendation (I hoped anyway) that students not use plagiarism detection software (both because it is reckless and also violates the rights of the authors, who did not give you permission to feed their writing into the gaping maw of these commercial databases), and also specific information about what we should do if we found an essay that contained plagiarism (since we are not able to give an essay a zero and/or flag it as inappropriate; we can only give the minimum grade of 1-1).
But... nothing. An email went out within 24 hours to the students of the Internet History course, so I expected that maybe after that email went out, we would get something similar in a day or two. Nope, nothing. Even worse: we got a boilerplate email from the "teaching assistant" for the course that said "We’re now in unit 03! I hope you enjoyed the lectures from Unit 02 as well as the essays and peer responses. As always, the forums are active with wonderful discussion and questions and we thank you for that. Based off these discussions on the forums, Professor Rabkin has made a supplementary video for the Alice novels, which we hope you will take a look at. It can be found in Video Lectures, under the Unit Two header. Thank you again all your hard work and please enjoy the new video!"
I'm glad that Professor Rabkin shared his thoughts about metaphors and mathematics in the supplementary video... but where is the response to the plagiarism questions? The discussion continues to roil the discussion board because people feel very strongly about it - and we have now gotten to hear from people falsely accused of plagiarism (just as I feared) as a result of people using detection software who don't know how to interpret the results. My favorite: the person who was accused of plagiarism because they posted their essay at their blog, just as I do, and the plagiarism detection software found the match and identified it as plagiarism.
In addition, I have learned about all kinds of other inappropriate material turned in for the essays that needs to be flagged, not just given a 1-1 score. There have been blank essays turned in (no doubt due to technical problems, as people have discussed at the discussion boards - discussions to which there has been no response from Coursera staff), along with essays for the wrong week (people were getting Week 1 Grimm essays turned in for Week 2 Alice), and - here's my personal favorite - SPAM essays. Amazing, isn't it? Someone got an essay that was a promotional review for a book about Cleopatra, and the essay of course contained a link to the online bookstore where the Cleopatra book was available for purchase! People have also reported essays with tell-tale signs of being generated by Google Translate, and some students have freely admitted to using Google Translate at the discussion boards - a complicated question worth discussing in its own right, but suffice to say that if Google Translate has left words in the original language not translated into English (a common enough occurrence), then the essay is certainly not ready for a peer to read and review.
In some ways, this is very familiar to any university instructor (we all have to educate our students about plagiarism and also know how to respond to it, if/when it happens). Some of it is admittedly peculiar to Coursera (peer feedback with zero instructor involvement... as well as the truly bizarre phenomenon of spam essays!). At the discussion board, I shared a link to the assignment about original writing and plagiarism that I require my own students to read, along with a link to a helpful article from our student newspaper that addresses what is (I think) the key issue of patchwork plagiarism, something that really does confuse a large number of students (in my experience anyway). Of course, my post is long lost in the churning chaos of the discussion boards; as often, the most popular post is the first one on the topic... which is the one that recommends to everybody that they use the plagiarism tracking software; it currently has 1500 views.
Well, it's a big and complex topic and I have reached the end of my cup of coffee, so I will just list here quickly the top 5 reasons why I think this is important and demands a response from the instructor and/or from the Coursera staff:
1. Plagiarism is a violation of the honor code of the class. For that reason alone, it constitutes a problem. If there is an honor code, it needs to mean something. Otherwise, they need to just get rid of the honor code. Clearly, they cannot do that - so, they need a set of procedures in place to deal with alleged violations of the honor code. I'm sure the University of Michigan has procedures in place for its students; I don't recall anything in the Coursera-Michigan contract that addressed this division of labor, but surely under the "Coursera Monetization Model," this would be Coursera's responsibility, not that of the University of Michigan.
2. Plagiarism means that students are not learning. If Coursera is committed to providing a good learning experience for students in the course, then it needs to intervene with a student who is plagiarizing, making sure the student understands what it means to do original work and why that is crucial to the learning experience. This, for me, is actually the most important reason that something has to be done about this - and far better, of course, if something is done proactively, rather than after a student has plagiarized. Now that Coursera knows plagiarism is a potential problem in a course with these types of writing assignments, some kind of plagiarism education needs to take place before the writing assignments begin. In our class, that plagiarism education needs to happen ASAP.
3. Plagiarism violates the conditions of trust on which peer feedback is predicated. If I am asked to give feedback on an essay that is plagiarized, both my time and good will are being wasted. This also applies to other inappropriate essays as well; I need to be able to flag an essay that I think is inappropriate and draw another essay from the pool - and Coursera then needs to figure out how to handle the essays that have been so flagged. On this point, I would have disagreed with the instructions from the Internet History instructor, who urged his students to review the essay completely, in addition to identifying the plagiarism problem - just speaking for myself, I am not prepared to give feedback on an essay until the plagiarism problem has been explained to the student and the student understands the difference between original writing and plagiarism.
4. Plagiarism strongly suggests that a different approach to the assignments is needed. If people are bored and/or confused by the essay assignment (I've written about that elsewhere), then either more support needs to be provided for the assignment and/or an array of different kinds of assignments, not just essay-writing, should be used. The type of assignment we have been given (verbatim identical assignment week after week - even the glaring error in the assignment instructions keeps getting repeated every week) is cookie-cutter perfect for plagiarism, if a student - for whatever reason - decides to go that route. (I usually assume that students plagiarize because they are bored, confused, or have run out of time - or a fatal combination of all three.)
5. Plagiarism detection and education cannot be left in the hands of fellow students. I've read outraged discussion board posts from people who are contemplating quitting the class because they were wrongfully accused of plagiarism; I do not blame them. If I were accused of plagiarism with no opportunity for redress, I would not choose to remain in the class. Obviously, the solution to that problem is to have an essay flagged for plagiarism (or as inappropriate for whatever reason) go to Coursera staff for review... but they apparently have not built anything into their model to handle such possibilities.
Okay, yes, there is more to say... including more to say about the good and bad of the peer feedback system for really challenging issues; plagiarism is just one such issue. But, sadly, it really doesn't matter what I say. What matters is what Coursera will say about all this. So far, no guidance of any kind has been shared with the thousands of participants in the class, and the discussion board continues to roil unattended.