What the plagiarism detection software isn’t detecting

image of cheat sheet cupped in a hand

wikimedia commons – labeled for reuse

Our University is revising an outdated Plagiarism Awareness Tutorial that does little to prevent plagiarism but does provide the “we told you so” necessary when a student actually gets caught. Like many universities, we are users of originality detection software that can review word use, phrasing, and citation with an immense database of journals, internet sources, and previously submitted work.

What these tools are missing is the student who uses a piece of work not for lifting text but for copying structure. If I want to make a case for electric cars and find a great article that lays out an ideal argument and then use the organization of that article to write my piece, I have plagiarized.

Thomas J. Tobin, at Northeastern Illinois University’s Center for Teaching and Learning, recently co-authored “Evaluating Online Teaching: Implementing Best Practices.” Last year Tobin wrote a piece in Faculty Focus that explored originality on three levels – content, design, and method. Including structure in a university definition of academic honesty and showing students how to avoid this aspect of plagiarism is as vital as any tool. Tobin encourages the use of originality software but also encourages faculty to get to know their students, to discuss issues among faculty, and to model processes and content for students.



My father worked in a steel mill most of his life, did a tour in the Army, and was raised on a farm in western Ireland. Brilliant mind in a tough-guy wrapper. Much to our surprise growing up, my siblings and I learned he didn’t do well with the sight of blood. I am not sure if it was related to a particular incident in his past but it was a trigger that left him squeamish and light headed.

Image showing a small drop of blood on a fingertip

https://www.flickr.com/photos/aldenchadwick/16009549679 Image labeled for Reuse

There is discussion in Higher Ed about whether it is good practice to give our students a heads-up about the content of our coursework that may trigger in them a negative or even a traumatic response.

In one of my recent classes I asked how many students had heard gunfire in the last month. I also asked how many knew someone who’d been shot. To both questions I was surprised by the high number of hands in the air.

Can reading the books and articles in my class elicit a PTSD response? Should I be censoring or providing an alert prior to showing my students certain movies or images? What if the image isn’t related to violence but affronts a student’s values instead, where is the line? There are many who’d consider any trigger warning requirement a challenge to academic freedom. A recent American Association of University Professors (AAUP) report by a committee looking at  academic freedom and tenure included, “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”

Each professor will have to decide what stance they wish to take on providing guidance or warnings associated with their materials. Professor Ari Kohen, University of Nebraska in Lincoln, was quoted on WNYC Radio and Public Radio International (source) to say that “In my human rights classes, I’ve always told students from the first one that the material is potentially very upsetting because we’re dealing with torture, genocide, and sexual violence. The potential there, I think, is quite real to be not simply disturbing.” Kohen went on to provide a few tips for how students should approach difficult material (note – “approach” not avoid) so that they’d be prepared to come to class ready to discuss the material.

Improving Teaching Online – Comparing Apples and Oranges?

Creative Commons image of apples and oranges from https://www.flickr.com/photos/armydre2008/6860026117/

Creative Commons image

Is there a fundamental difference between how a liberal-arts course is presented online and how online courses from other majors/programs or from research institutions are constructed or evaluated?

In a recent post on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus blog, Jeffrey Young shared information on a new consortium of liberal-arts colleges looking at pooling resources in support of online offerings. This consortium has membership overlap with edX, the  MOOC provider.

I recognize that there is a difference in teaching style between colleges and that that style translates to differences online particularly when it comes to specific tool usage and approaches within an LMS. I also see that goals for moving online at all may be different between liberal-arts and research institutions. I question, however, whether that difference is big enough to warrant a consortium that in its structure may miss the opportunity to see how other institutions and programs are utilizing tools and methods for student success online.

While a driver here is not reinventing the wheel (of support and resources) for consortial members, I wonder if there isn’t already a wheel in place – or a tire store. OLC (formerly Sloan-C), Quality Matters, and Educause all have a wealth of resources targeting online course support. Liberal-arts schools may have lagged behind in moving online but why would liberal-arts schools, who embrace learning across the curriculum as a part of their nature, want to form a club that could potentially exclude lessons learned from the last two decades?

Recreating Ancient Greek Ceramics



In the spring of 2015 Johns Hopkins University teamed up with Baltimore Clayworks to provide students with an experiential learning course that focused on researching and recreating ancient Greek ceramics. The course set out to put theory into practice. In the first few weeks of the course students learned about the historic significance of drinking cups to ancient Greek symposiums.   As the course developed students began working with clay while also observing the science that is involved in creating ancient ceramics. And finally, the students were asked to provide a finished product that replicated ancient works of art.   The only word that comes to mind as I explore the website documenting the students journey is WOW. This is truly an exciting example of experiential learning that needs to be shared and promoted.



Renovated Classrooms Lead to Innovative Learning



In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, librarian Brian Mathews wrote about the ways that new classroom designs are allowing his library to become a pedagogical incubator. Instead of setting up traditional rows of desks and computers, his institution invested in classroom furniture that is flexible: tables that can be configured in a variety of ways, rolling individual desks that can be grouped easily for team projects, flat screens and mobile tables that can be configured as a media lab, pictured above.

When students walk into a classroom environment that does not look the way that classrooms have looked for the past 150 years, they know that they are going to be doing something that goes beyond lectures and tests. The physical environment influences the activity that goes on within it. Innovative learning spaces should exist outside of library incubators. Our students deserve to learn in environments that encourage the best pedagogical practices.

Universities should recognize that students rarely see the interior of administrative offices. They might spend an evening in an auditorium, and the truly committed hang out at the library. The college spaces that influence them the most are the classrooms, and every university should invest in learning spaces that reflect their educational mission and encourage innovation.

Take a look at the animation for Verb classroom.

And here is the Node Classroom


Don’t Rely on Grades Alone by David Gooblar





Don’t Rely on Grades Alone by David Gooblar in Vitae on April 15, 2015 is a refreshing commentary on the merits of developing intrinsic motivation to get students to learn.  In my day-to day conversations with educators in an attempt to promote student-centered learning, in lieu of the “traditional” classroom lecture that was the status quo twenty years ago, I normally observe a slight hesitation.  Especially when it comes to “group work” which I prefer to call “team work” because the term sets a different tone in respect to work dynamics.   Critics of team work seem to be either concerned with grading such assignments or with the lack of participation that some times occurs with particular team members.  As the article points out, decades of research dismisses extrinsic rewards in the achievement of learning outcomes, and effective student participation depends on student motivation.  The key to effective team projects begins with course design and proper implementation.  Mr. Gooblar notes that the educator needs to “sell” such projects on the first day of class while reviewing the syllabus.  Educators need to spark an interested in the students to get them to want to learn.  This can be done by focusing on fascinating problems that intrigue students inviting further inquiry, but also by following up on assignments and putting the learning process in context to the course.  It is important to communicate the learning process to the students because it might not be something that at first appears intuitive.  Finally, the article concludes by reminding the reader of the importance of giving students ownership over the course and acknowledging a concern for their work.

It is Never Too Early to Start Productive Habits of Mind

Southwest Baltimore Charter School

Southwest Baltimore Charter School

Ten years ago I helped start Southwest Baltimore Charter School in my neighborhood. As the current board chair,  I’ve learned a great deal from the dedicated K-8 teachers and administrators who work there.  SBCS is an Expeditionary Learning School where students engage in hands-on extended projects as they work their way through the Common Core curriculum.  I’ve found that the practices that SBCS instills in its students, especially EL’s Core Practices, would serve college students as well, especially in a general education context.  You can find the practices below and read more about Expeditionary Learning here.

1. The Primacy of Self-Discovery

Learning happens best with emotion, challenge, and the requisite support. People discover their abilities, values, passions, and responsibilities in situations that offer adventure and the unexpected. In Expeditionary Learning schools, students undertake tasks that require perseverance, fitness, craftsmanship, imagination, self-discipline, and significant achievement. A teacher’s primary task is to help students overcome their fears and discover they can do more than they think they can.

2. The Having of Wonderful Ideas

Teaching in Expeditionary Learning schools fosters curiosity about the world by creating learning situations that provide something important to think about, time to experiment, and time to make sense of what is observed.

3. The Responsibility for Learning

Learning is both a personal process of discovery and a social activity. Everyone learns both individually and as part of a group. Every aspect of an Expeditionary Learning school encourages both children and adults to become increasingly responsible for directing their own personal and collective learning.

4. Empathy and Caring

Learning is fostered best in communities where students’ and teachers’ ideas are respected and where there is mutual trust. Learning groups are small in Expeditionary Learning schools, with a caring adult looking after the progress and acting as an advocate for each child. Older students mentor younger ones, and students feel physically and emotionally safe.

5. Success and Failure

All students need to be successful if they are to build the confidence and capacity to take risks and meet increasingly difficult challenges. But it is also important for students to learn from their failures, to persevere when things are hard, and to learn to turn disabilities into opportunities.

6. Collaboration and Competition

Individual development and group development are integrated so that the value of friendship, trust, and group action is clear. Students are encouraged to compete, not against each other, but with their own personal best and with rigorous standards of excellence.

7. Diversity and Inclusion

Both diversity and inclusion increase the richness of ideas, creative power, problem-solving ability, and respect for others. In Expeditionary Learning schools, students investigate and value their different histories and talents as well as those of other communities and cultures. Schools and learning groups are heterogeneous.

8. The Natural World

A direct and respectful relationship with the natural world refreshes the human spirit and teaches the important ideas of recurring cycles and cause and effect. Students learn to become stewards of the earth and of future generations.

9. Solitude and Reflection

Students and teachers need time alone to explore their own thoughts, make their own connections, and create their own ideas. They also need to exchange their reflections with other students and with adults.

10. Service and Compassion

We are crew, not passengers. Students and teachers are strengthened by acts of consequential service to others, and one of an Expeditionary Learning school’s primary functions is to prepare students with the attitudes and skills to learn from and be of service.

Mock Trial a Genuine Success



This spring I staged a mock trial in “Everyday Lives,” my general education social history class.  I have tried these exercises in past years with mixed results, but this time around it really worked. The twenty-five students in the class were prepared and engaged, and they learned something about 1830s New York City. I attribute the success to the set up. Here are some steps you can take to make an experiential learning activity go smoothly in your classroom.

1. Provide students with background information

In this class students read The Murder of Helen Jewett  by Patricia Cline Cohen. This examination of the 1836 murder of a young prostitute includes lost of information about social history, legal history, and the sexual mores of the day. Students used the information in the book as their reference as they prepared for trial. They did not have to do additional research; they simply had to analyze the materials in the book. Everyone was on the same page.

2. Give students options

Two weeks before the date of the trial, we were about half-way through the book. We had met most of the characters but had not seen the report of the trial proceedings. I handed out two identical character lists and asked students to lay claim to one of the actual historical figures. Students chose to take on the characters of prostitutes, young male clerks, the coroner, policemen, or members of the legal teams. This array of choices worked well in this general education class filled with freshmen who planned to major in criminal justice, forensics, jurisprudence, business and history. (I’m not sure if the game design majors found compatible characters.) After the lists went around I compared them and negotiated with the students who had both picked the same character. This method allowed students who wanted to take on more responsibility to sign on as attorneys on the legal team; the students who chose these roles really rose to the occasion.

3. Hold students accountable

One week before the trial I asked every student who was a witness to post a character profile on the discussion board of our course management system. This exercise showed students how to use an index in a scholarly book and also helped the legal teams craft their argument. The firm deadline of this requirement also allowed me to acquire some hard data I could use when grading the entire exercise.

4. Keep everyone busy

Two days before the trial, I sent the entire class to the library. Students who would serve as witnesses were required to find a secondary source that would give them historical context for their character. They had to summarize that source and provide a citation. While they were working on that information literacy task, the legal teams circulated among them asking them questions about the testimony they would give later that week. Although they were doing different things, everyone was occupied in a worthwhile venture.

On the day of the trial, I asked the witnesses to write a summary of the trial proceedings from the point of view of their character. These in-class writings demonstrated that they had learned about the person they were portraying and understood the concept of loin of view.

5. Make expectations for grading clear

Process is important for professors, and in these experiential activities grading may seem secondary. But students need grades, and to be graded fairly they to know the basis for their evaluation. In this exercise I graded witnesses on their witness profile, their source for historical context, their in-class point of view written submission, and their testimony on the stand. The legal teams were evaluated on their line of questioning and mastery of the facts of the case. The legal teams did not have to submit anything in writing. Two days before the trial one student told me he had a conflict due to a doctor’s visit, but on the day of the trial every other student came to class.  As Darien Ripple, my colleague who came in to act as the judge, can attest, every student testified accurately and all were able to answer questions without hesitation. I gave high marks to everyone for their testimony.

6. Keep a strict timetable

I have tried the Anne Hutchinson trial from Reacting to the Past and although I liked it in concept, the actual execution over five weeks seemed too long. In this class we started reading the book on the second week of class and we held the trial in the fifth week. Students were only working with their character for two weeks. The time crunch made them more efficient and they did not have time to lose interest in their characters.

This exercise reinforced most of UB’s general education goals:

  • communicate effectively in many different modes
  • gather, synthesize and critically evaluate information
  • make ethical and evidence-based decisions
  • understand systems and think systemically
  • negotiate divergent and competing perspectives

I would definitely stage it again.


Redefining Faculty


simpsons professors

A number of years back when I left academia to return to industry, I had one condition for my soon-to-be partners: under no circumstances would I manage other people. I’d be willing to do just about anything for the new company – in a startup, that’s the very definition of “employment”—but when it came to management, in the immortal words of Meatloaf, “I won’t do that.” (http://youtu.be/iOikQWAL8qc )

I’d spent 12 years running a digital agency and almost 3 years as serving as the founding Dean of a school of design and media at a small university in Philadelphia, I knew that while I could muddle through reasonably well, “manager” wasn’t in the top 5 (maybe not even the top 10!) of my “things I do well” list. I’d grown to understand that while I was pretty good at coming up with creative ideas, interacting with clients, and selling the company’s services to prospective clients I just didn’t have the detail-oriented temperament and organizational skills it took to really excel at managing people. And I was OK with that as were my partners who were more than willing to take me on so that I could contribute using the skills where I did excel.

In the end, it worked out pretty well. One of the founders, it turned out, was pretty good at managing people and he and I worked out a mutually-beneficial symbiotic relationship that accentuated our individual strengths and compensated for our individual weaknesses. He did what he was good at, I did what I was good at, and everyone was happy (and successful).

I thought about all this recently when I read this article (http://goo.gl/n1sqUC) on Inside Higher Education about a new report (http://goo.gl/AvpGia) (PDF download) from The Delphi Project at the University of Southern California Earl and Pauline Pullias Center for Higher Education. The report, entitled “Adapting by Design” looks at the current state of faculty roles and faculty work in higher education in America and how those roles and work will play out in the future of higher ed.

While the report examines a number of issues beyond the “adjunct/non-tenure-track faculty vs. tenure track faculty” debate, much of its focus is on this issue. But rather than delve into ground that’s already been covered in many other places (e.g. the value of tenure or the exploitation of adjuncts), Delphi’s effort is focused on the problems of where we are today in order to offer potential solutions for where higher education needs to go tomorrow.

The core of their argument is that the notion of what faculty should do – while once fairly well defined and respected—has devolved into a conflicting mish-mash of roles and responsibilities that serve no one – students, institutions, and the faculty members themselves—well. The result is the current situation of inequitable compensation, over-reliance on poorly paid itinerant adjuncts, financial mismanagement, organizational malaise, teaching that often doesn’t meet the needs of today’s students, and increasing difficulties in producing high-quality scholarship.

The end-game, the report asserts, is that by having to meet an ever-widening sphere or institutional demands, faculty “ will either sustain the gradual decline of [their] profession, or [they] will invite frustrated policymakers and outsiders, who lack the appropriate perspective to effectively direct change, to recreate faculty careers and roles.” In other words, things are going to change one way or another, and faculty either need to take charge of the situation or risk having the situation take charge of their futures.

While the report doesn’t offer a singular answer, it does suggest a number of intriguing models for reforming the system that seems to be broken (or in the process of breaking) in Chapter 7 of the report. But rather than go into detail on each one here, I do think it’s important to draw out the one element that they all have in common: we (and by “we” I mean the “collective we” of faculty, administrators, and other stakeholders) need to be willing to take a hard look at the University model in the light of today’s economic, societal, educational, and professional realities and be willing to ask one very hard question: what should faculty really be doing…and is there a single answer to that question?

Ernest Boyer identified four key aspects of faculty roles: discovery, integration, application, and teaching. Right now, faculty are expected to engage in all four. But what if the definition of “faculty” didn’t involve integrating all these activities into one job? What if faculty could move back and forth between these four roles every few years? What if some faculty were able to engage in one (or some) of these four roles every few years but were considered equal to other faculty? What if teaching involved a combination of faculty from different disciplines who combined forces to bring one or more aspects of the faculty role together to teach a single subject? What if it were OK to turn to others (in particular non-faculty “paraprofessional” specialists) to assist with one or more of these aspects in the course of doing one’s job? What if faculty weren’t expected to be good at everything at once?

I think that few would argue that today’s faculty are under an enormous amount of pressure from the pile of mounting responsibilities they’re asked to tackle. And few would argue, I believe, that it doesn’t seem that the pace of change – and the need to respond to that change—isn’t slowing down. Shifting demographics, economic pressures, technological developments, and the challenges of educating students with a variety of developmental needs are all combining to make the job faculty members face harder every day. It seems that unless we’re willing to take a hard look at ourselves and our professions, we’re not going to be able to face the challenges of today or the unknown challenges facing us in the future. The answer may not reside in this new report from Delphi, but it’s definitely worth the read for anyone who’s interested in asking the hard questions as we continue the conversation about the future of higher education.

Dear Student: No, I Won’t Change the Grade You Deserve



Dear Student: No, I Won’t Change the Grade You Deserve

Stacey Patton posted the question to various individuals associated with higher education on how to respond to a student requesting a grade change in a “C” paper because the student claimed to work very hard on the assignment. I was attracted to the article because the situation has seemed to become common in the past decade. I do not know if I am just getting older, or as the article suggests there seems to be a new generation of students that have a sense of academic entitlement. I am not going to lie, in that I found myself smiling and acknowledging some real truths regarding teaching and learning in the responses presented to the hypothetical “C” student, although at the same time the responses tended to be snarkish and condescending. In some ways the discourse revealed a clear divide in the lifeworlds of students and educators. A divide that should prompt institutions of higher education to further explore possible disconnects in the process of teaching and learning.