Hello everyone! I'm delighted to be your guest this week, and I look forward to our discussions on a topic which--alas!--touches all of us. I had some trouble coming up with a title for this presentation, and toyed for a brief while with "Plagiarism-Proofing an Online Course." But that would hardly have been truth in advertising, since I doubt that any course can be made totally immune to dishonesty. I have, however, found some ways to make plagiarism harder to commit and easier to detect in my composition courses, and those are what I would like to share with you here.

Making an Online Course Plagiarism Resistant

The invitation to develop the online section of Composition II for Oakton was a wonderful opportunity. Because I had the latitude to design the course from the ground up, I would be able to combine all I had learned about online course design in my ION work with my practical experiences as a classroom writing instructor. But I also knew from the start that the huge resources of the World Wide Web could vastly increase the risks of dishonesty in a course historically plagued with plagiarism.

Despite this, or maybe because of it, my first course-design decision, the one from which a great many subsequent design decisions flowed, was quite easy. The course would employ a process-based pedagogy, just as my traditional face-to-face classes did.

Because researching and writing a term paper involves a number of skills with which many community college students have had relatively little experience, I believe that it's desirable to make them use those skills repeatedly in tasks of increasing complexity. The recursive, reiterative nature of a process-based design is well-suited to this goal. The course structure I adapted for the online Composition II requires the students to first write a brief paper in which they summarize and analyze the contents of one source which they may use for their final research paper. Then a second, somewhat longer paper is required in which they do the same with three sources. At the same time, they are to be actively investigating and adopting additional sources, and they are next required to submit an annotated bibliography of at least five to seven sources which will be used in their final paper. And lastly, there is the final research paper itself. For the two shorter papers and the final paper, they submit rough drafts which are peer-reviewed by classmates, as well as by myself, before being rewritten and submitted for a grade.

During the first 4 to 5 weeks of the term, I require the students to actively consider and investigate a range of potential topics. Then I ask them to commit to the one which they find most promising shortly before they write the essay based upon a single source. At that point, they must provide me with a draft thesis statement for their research project and a list of at least three sources which they are likely to use in their research. The source which they use in the single-source essay is to come from this list of three sources.

From a pedagogical standpoint, this design allows the students to repeatedly practice the skills of handling sources by summarizing, paraphrasing, quoting, and documenting them as they are woven together in the increasingly complicated fabric of their research paper. An additional benefit is that the structure of incremental deadlines for the various stages of the project does much to reduce stress and prevent procrastination. And, as we all know, procrastination often leads to the eleventh-hour panic out of which much plagiarism is born.

At the same time, as the amount of work invested in a topic increases during the semester, so too does the cost of changing topics. So whenever a student changes topics between papers, I take this as a warning sign. And such a sign seldom occurs in isolation.

When the first paper is not based upon any of the three sources in the student's initial list, I am concerned. I am even more concerned when the student does not submit the list of sources at all. When the first paper includes three, or even five or more, sources when it should only deal with one, it's pretty apparent what's happening. But even when the paper deals with only one source, there may be problems. The assignment is to examine the source as a source, to look at the author's credentials, at how the argument is presented and supported, at what types of information are and aren't present. When a student submits a paper which instead uses a source to support a line of argument, the student may just have misunderstood the assignment, but they will have gotten my attention, and we will have a discussion about their paper.

Even when a student uses the appropriate number of sources in each paper and doesn't switch topics between papers, there may be radical differences in tone and style between them. Or all the sources may date from a 12-to-24 mother period five or ten years ago. Or all the sources may be print resources, an oddity in an internet course. Just as in the face-to-face classroom, these are all warning signs.

With regard to documentation of sources, I make it clear from the point at which they write the first essay that I expect them to furnish at the requisite information about their sources-author, title, publisher, date, page numbers-but I allow them to be informal in their formatting. I do this to emphasize that habits of knowing when to acknowledge sources and what information to give are more important that the particular format in which they document their sources. I leave the consideration of the specifics of the MLA, APA, and Chicago styles of documentation till the final third of the course.

So when one of the early papers documents sources in perfect style-manual format, I have cause to wonder why. And when subsequent papers format according to different styles, I become very suspicious.

The annotated bibliography tends to be something of an acid-test. Pedagogically, its purpose is to ensure that the students have studied their sources in depth and understand them correctly. Writing a good annotated requires about the same amount and quality of work as using the source effectively in a paper. So when an annotation is superficial and far short of the required 200 words, it tells me at a minimum that the student hasn't spent much time reading the sources. When the annotated bibliography does not include the sources from the first two papers, or the sources in the bibliography do not appear in the final paper, something is amiss.

So what do I do when an irregularity occurs? Well, it's always nice to have the smoking gun, and I do make a few internet searches myself. If I can't turn up anything, I'll enlist the help of an internet-savvy librarian for a brief search. But I think it's counterproductive to spend more time playing detective than the miscreant spent cheating in the first place. And the discrepancies which come to light in this course design are significant enough to confront a student with--and to take to a disciplinary hearing if necessary.

I realize I've probably raised more questions for you than I've answered. If fact, I hope so-it should make for a good discussion.

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