Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Academic integrity

I really thought, and hoped, that the OU was on to something with the launch of its Good Academic Practice and Developing Good Academic Practice pages, and would push towards enabling students to be students, to develop and take ownership of, and take pride in, their own thinking and their own academic voice.

So I was disappointed to find that the Good Academic Practice page was in fact all about plagiarism. Don't get me wrong, a plagiarism policy is a necessity, for the very few cases where it occurs. And a plagiarism practice is also a necessity (rather than them just being let off, which, judging by anecdotes from ALs, has happened too often in the past). But there is so much more to good academic practice than the avoidance and/or punishment of deliberate misrepresentation.

I was even more disappointed to find that the Developing Good Academic Practices pages open to students were also primarily about plagiarism. To be sure they put plagiarism into a context, but it is still, in my opinion, emphasised more than the good reasons for good academic practice. I think this is important. The issue of plagiarism has become salient for us, but we shouldn't make it too important when we talk to our students. If we treat people like potential criminals, there is more chance that they will start to think like potential criminals. Should we not be more positive in the way we approach this? The vast majority of our students want to learn and are not interested in cheating. I'm interested in teaching my students how to learn; I don't need to teach them how to avoid deliberate misrepresentation. There is so much that we should be saying about academic integrity and good academic practice before we broach the subject of plagiarism. Maybe it does have a place on the front page of a site about developing good academic practice but it should be at the bottom, not slap in the middle.

What we should be starting with and emphasising, I think, is helping people to learn their own academic voice. There are so many positive reasons for teaching it, and for weaving into that issues about good academic practice, without having to tell them we think they are bound to try to cheat us at some point. There are many more positive reasons to give to students for distinguishing their own work from somebody else's in assignments:

a) the habit of accuracy. It's accurate to say where a thought comes from.

b) better learning. When your assignment is being marked, if your marker knows clearly which are your thoughts and which are somebody else's, they can address their comments more precisely to what you have done, rather than to what somebody else has done, and they can better help you to develop your thinking process.

c) the habit of courtesy. When you borrow omebody else's lawnmower you thank them for it. When you borrow somebody else's words, you should thank them for those as well. After all, some day, you may be in the position that somebody else will borrow your words.

d) greater awareness of developing your own voice. You are at one stage or another in evolving the way you think, and the way you express what you think. Awareness of when you are using somebody else's words and when you are using your own can help greatly in that process. It's a never ending process - the world's greatest academics are all still doing it. And it's the most important process of all in being a student. You will not stop doing it till the day you stop thinking. And the key point here is that it's *your* voice, not anybody else's, so telling the difference is very important to you.

e)... f)... g)... and anything else you can think of, and then - only at the bottom of the list - comes the issue that we need to avoid the possibility of plagiarism.


AnneH said...

Absolutely! Very well said, thanks Rob :-)

Sarah said...

I'm so glad I read this post. I believe that a number of OU students feel that ANY discussion of a TMA question is utterly forbidden, rather than a helpful way to promote learning. I have been threatened with 'being reported' for discussing ideas, even though this discussion was not in a public forum. Surely, when studying as a distance learner, this is something that is lacking in comparison to a 'bricks & mortar' university, where discussions of course materials and essays are able to flourish in pubs and studies, giving every student the insight into other's thought processes.

By all means, warn of the dangers of plagiarism, and encourage students to be proud of their own 'voice', but this scare-mongering I feel is unnecessary, and counter-productive.

Rob said...

I'm glad you feel like that, Sarah - the second bit that is, not the first. I think it's a great shame that you've been threatened in that way. Keep talking :-)