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Department of Information & Communications
Designing Out Plagiarism and Supporting Widening Participation:
a strategy implemented to support a technical unit, with online submission
or what we did to help the students and help ourselves
This article is based on a seminar presented at MMU Cheshire’s second Learning and Teaching conference (September 2004). I chose to focus on the efforts made by myself and Jonathan Willson in the Department of Information and Communications to better support the wide variety of technical skills and academic abilities of our students, whilst addressing the problems of plagiarism. The desired outcome is that the students should be better supported and encouraged to produce quality work that conforms to industry standards.
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have been taught in the Department of Information and Communications over many years and has included database design and basic IT skills. The Department has been using the Internet since 1976 with access to huge pre-World Wide Web information databases such as those hosted by Dialog and Datastar. Web based technologies were adopted in teaching as soon as available at MMU as many information resources became accessible to all. The Department launched its own website and intranet in 1995 and the started teaching web design in 1998. The first unit was created by Jonathan and I provided support. After 3 years I took over the lead role and we have now started our seventh year as a team.
Web design is taught in Information and Communications at each level of the undergraduate programme. In the first year students are introduced to the Internet as a serious information tool. Web design focuses on the page, introducing the basic concepts and skills. In the second year the focus moves to the website as a whole, dealing with planning and implementation of a small site. The final year students concentrate on creating, managing and developing a site and are introduced to content management tools and techniques. Each student/group has live web space which is hosted and managed within the Department.
The first group of students taught web design were predominantly mature students on the predecessor of the current BSc (Hons) Information and Communications. They were a very attentive group and took to the new unit well. The unit was (and still is) taught as a 1 hour lecture and a 1 hour laboratory based session. For many of the practical sessions the materials made available by Netskills at the University of Newcastle (http:// www.netskills.ac.uk) were used to provide practical guides. These very detailed workbooks let the student work at their own pace, allowing us to provide support when and where needed.
As the years progressed the makeup of the cohort has changed greatly. The age range is still wide, but has become pre-dominantly younger. This diverse group also contains what is often referred to as ‘new students’ with many not coming to Higher Education via the traditional route of A Levels. When approaching web design there is an even wider mix of technical abilities. There have been the techno phobic, the technically proficient and the technically over confident. Each group brings its own needs and expectations to these units.
The Department is well placed to support students as it has used its own intranet as a document delivery system since 1995. This system, Courseware, allows staff to publish supporting materials for all taught units. For web design this means lecture slides, workbooks plus additional materials such as online tutorials and demonstrations. Supplementary materials can also be provided offering students the scope for further study.
The accessibility to students is greatly enhanced as the materials are available online, in digital format, 24/7. Students with various disabilities have the opportunity to set the presentation of the materials to suit their personal needs. For a dyslexic, this may mean printing a workbook to a certain coloured paper, whilst to a visually impaired student this may mean increasing the font size on all materials. The Department supports such actions through the provision of equipment and supplies.
Some second year students are either direct entrants or chose web design as an elective on other degree programmes. As these students may have missed the first year unit an accelerated programme has been implemented to ensure that the students are able to catch up with their peers. This has been through the provision of additional materials and support. During 2003/2004 this scheme proved to be successful.
Initially the web design units were assessed by a single project and written examination. The project was an end of year submission which suffered from the obvious drawback that any feedback at this late stage was of little use to the student. It was found that students tended to leave the project to the final weeks of the unit and this pressure sometimes led individual students to plagiarise. During the second and third years that the units ran a variety of cases of plagiarism were detected. As with many IT units that use code as the basis for practical work there were a number of problems. Code for web pages can be taken from practically any page available on the World Wide Web. Chunks of code are readily available from online tutorials and the content for a web site such as text and media can be downloaded and inserted with ease. We also had to deal with a working environment that we had developed where each student or group of students placed their work in progress on live web space that is accessible to all their peers.
Our solution was to move to an iterative form of assessment. This was done through a number of actions.
Breakdown of assessment into chunks
Year 2 has four group staged elements (50%), plus an individual lab test (25%) and final written examination (25%).
Year 3 has three individual staged elements (35%), 2 group pieces (40%) and final written examination (25%).
Integration of workbooks and assignments
Specific tasks from the lab workbooks are assessed as part of the ACW
Time and tutorial space is made during lab time in support of the assessed coursework
Quick turnaround of feedback
Students are given individual/group feedback within 2 weeks of submission
General feedback is discussed with the whole group Early feedback gives the chance for students to learn from their mistakes, and those of others.
Group work with peer assessment
The less technical can contribute as well as others
In group work collusion is required to carry out plagiarism so as such the temptation is reduced
Peer assessment provides a mechanism to resolve group issues and an opportunity to reward certain group members
Detailed assignment briefs
As a team we annually review (tweak) assessments using feedback and our own experiences
The restrictions applied through the detailed briefs provide a real world situation: we’re the client, you create what we ask for
The brief also becomes a reference tool, additional ‘tips’, e.g. issues such as copyright approval
Ensuring there are at least some individual elements provides the opportunity for students to air their opinions, demonstrate depth of understanding
The Lab test act as a prompt/benchmark for individual practical skills
The results of the lab test help us combat plagiarism, by providing an insight into what each student is capable of when faced with a web design task.
The detailed assignment briefs and the accompanying marking do generate extra work, but the effort is worth it. The briefs ensure the students know what is expected and the limitations that they should work within. The marking is onerous but Jonathan and I do it jointly, making use of an electronic marking assistant (see Jonathan Willson’s article).
The result has been a marked improvement in the quality of both group and individual work. Feedback from students has also been very positive. e.g. “The assessment/exam ratio is excellent.”
The fact that we are seeing students working on their assignments means we can monitor who is doing the work and at what level. It also gives us a chance to spot and monitor those that are not putting in the required effort.
Another application has been the use of online submission. Group or individual work is hosted on the student’s web space, uploaded via FTP. This is accessible outside MMU and the students can see each other’s work. This has sometimes led to ‘good ideas’ spreading across sites, but we have only detected one case of blatant plagiarism. The assignment briefs are written with this in mind, making plagiarism often the ‘hard’ option! An example is the database exercise which has to be understood and customised to such an extent that nearly all cases of plagiarism would stand out.
Some documents are more sensitive, and for this an upload folder is provided in each website. This folder has restricted access for only the tutors and the students involved.
One of the key successes of online submission is the very small number of requests for extensions. On the coursework deadline the web server access is halted and a copy is made of all the relevant student work. This provides a ‘snap shot’ of all the student websites at the time of the submission deadline.
Besides fewer extensions and improved quality of work, the cases of (detected) plagiarism have been greatly reduced. The less technically able are able to contribute (and succeed). In fact over the last six years we have discovered that web design seems to be a great way for the techno phobic to lose their fears and prejudices about computers. This is probably through their need to finally understand files and folders, but also perhaps because the creative element of this field makes it fun. The iterative process also gives space for all students to make the best use of the feedback and support.
Is it all roses? We do have fears, technical failure being one of the biggest. Such detailed briefs also make us question if we are over assessing. However the students seem to cope well with few complaints. We do put ourselves under pressure to get marks back as quickly as possible. However, the feedback can only be of use to the student if they can learn from it before progressing with the next element.
At the moment Jonathan and I are both happy that the units are working well, although due to the subject matter there is an ongoing change that has to be reflected in content, exercises and assessments. Our hope now is to learn from the practices of others. To this extent I am creating an MMU Web Tutors Group for those involved in teaching areas related to web design, as a means of communication, which among other things will help us share our practices and experiences. To join you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
telephone: 0161 247 6154
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