Parents' Guide

Education, Scholarships, Parenting Tips

Assignments – Write versus Right

Way back in “my day”, we sought information from the stacks of books and journals in a physical library, keeping notes and compiling our own thoughts and theories from the data of our own work, as reflected against and/or supported by the published materials to which we had (or could acquire) access. Contrastingly, in “the Internet Age”, one need merely “Google” a few terms, cut & paste a few pointers, mess them about a bit to avoid detection by “Turnitin”, and, Voila! – assignment complete. Regrettably, submitters learn very little from this process, and exacerbate this fault with the risk of a phenomenon I’ve always termed “accidental plagiarism”.

This insidious beast is fed through a common poor practice amongst today’s students who work with multiple “Windows” open upon their desktop – several reference sources and their assignment document, for example. In such a work process it is all too easy to see how the expediency of the cut-paste-amend process can become even more streamlined with less use of the amend component.

As my old biology mentor once told me:

You can never cheat in science, because you will always get caught. It might take years but, eventually, someone will find out what you did. Do you really want that as your legacy?

Here was a concept that resonated with me so fully that I have extrapolated the idea into every facet of life, and I have always tried to inculcate the same values into my teaching.

I perceive learning as the central hub of all our lives, just as the sharing of that learning must be the goal. Hence, when my students over the years have lamented upon not being able to retain information, or even to appropriately source, cite and utilise information for assignments and exams, it struck me that the problem was largely a matter of poor habits and Internet usage, rather than ill intent. Perhaps, I surmised, it is simply that they do not have the confidence or training to recognise what plagiarism is, or how inherently distinct are knowledge and information and intelligence and wisdom and skill.

First, to address a common defence I have too often heard at disciplinary hearings:

“But, the stuff I copied came from Wikipedia, and that isn’t copyright!”

The University of Oxford defines “plagiarism” as: “presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement. All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under this definition. Plagiarism may be intentional or reckless, or unintentional.”

Copyright, in contrast, is a legal term conferring protection under the law for literary property and, whilst copyright materials are obviously not available for unreferenced use in an assignment, the above definition by Oxford makes it clear that this prohibition is not limited to such materials. Regardless of these moralities, however, any student is smarter than Google and will know their class and their subject better than Wikipedia or some “essay-writer” hired over the Internet, just as the teacher will know the style of an individual student’s work in comparison to that of their classmates.

Moreover, and beyond such ethical reproaches and legal distinctions, isn’t it evident that the “Google-cut-and-paste” process is self-defeating, whether or not the plagiarism software catches you? Similarly, getting someone else to write the assignment for you gains you nothing but a transient grade (if you’re lucky). After all, theft is theft, however intangible the item stolen, and the entire “so long as I pass” approach to learning that such cheating supports is not only ultimately counter-productive, but also abysmally lazy. One’s purpose in school is to learn and understand, to grow as a person and acquire the skills, habits and knowledge that will enable you to become not only a productive member of our global community, but also a happy one. You are not in class to have information shovelled in one end merely to regurgitate it back out upon command. Certainly, knowledge is valueless without understanding, just as success is an empty prize if it has been attained purely by riding upon the backs of others – even if one circumvents the “theft” concept by paying those “others” for their illegitimate academic contribution.

Onwards to the more philosophical concept noted above, and how the intelligent man only recognises that it is raining, whereas the wise man seeks shelter.

I inferred earlier that knowledge and information are easy – Google has these almost without limitation – but, the intelligent utilisation of the information one can access, and acquiring the skill, experience and wisdom to discern truth from fantasy or blatant subterfuge and, thereby, to create a new paradigm or a new concept, or to find new meaning or a new utility for that knowledge and information; those are hard – and, hence far more worthy of one’s focus and effort than is the honing of one’s Google-search or Turnitin-defeating skills.

As a consequence of holding many discussions along the above lines with my students, I felt it prudent (alright, temporally efficient) to condense the points I wanted them to understand into as succinct a “menu” as possible. What follows is the result, and I hope it will help upcoming generations of students not only to excel in their immediate studies, but to revitalise their own holistic educations – to begin again to understand what an increasingly cynical humanity has largely, if gradually, lost sight of: that each of us can achieve whatever we dream to achieve – if we are prepared to work hard enough, with an open-mind, and an honest heart; with passion, commitment and a full view of the contributions we can make not just to our own lives, but to the lives of those we love, those they love and those who love us in return.

So, dream big and remember the words of John F. Kennedy: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept.”

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