Reducing Academic Dishonesty by Assigning Web Projects

A pivotal moment from the 1952 short educational film Cheating.  Too bad John’s teacher wasn’t able to use a web-based assignment!

Many of our faculty members in the humanities at the College of William & Mary have started to turn to web-based projects for student writing assignments. In the past, many of these faculty members have asked me about using Blackboard’s blog and wiki tools for these digital writing assignments, and while these tools are convenient, I have usually recommended that in the long run, faculty members would be much happier with a W&M WordPress website.

Now, while some believe that Blackboard’s built-in blog and wiki writing tools have their advantages (the two big ones are that 1. these blogs and wikis are automatically private, and 2. the single sign-in for Blackboard is a one-stop shop), I am increasingly leaning more and more in favor of a WordPress site for most courses involving some sort of media-rich, web-based research assignment.

WordPress and Digital Cheaters

There are a number of reasons why I think WordPress is often the best choice for writing assignments, but in the last few years, I’ve dealt with situations that have really brought home one of the less obvious reasons why WordPress is increasingly a great choice, not just for media-rich student assignments, but for any writing assignment: reducing the threat of cheating. Granted, in general, cheating at William & Mary is not a huge problem, but when it does happen, it has a profound negative effect on everyone involved.

Let me step back for a minute and give you some background:  I’m regularly called in to consult on the best way to implement WordPress to create a course website, and as part of that consultation, I always offer to come in to the class to teach the students how to use a few of the more useful features of WordPress to help them produce media-rich web projects. It’s really easy to add videos, images, links, maps, and more to a research paper, and I usually just go in and show the students how easy it is to do all those things.

However, with this ease of production come several new opportunities for students to get into trouble. The last few times I’ve taught an introduction to WordPress, I’ve made sure to discuss how to cite text sources as well as videos and images students use from other websites. I’ve also made a specific point of showing students (and their professors) how they can change the dates of their posts to make it look like they’ve turned in an assignment on a specific date. This might be tempting to a student trying to get in work they completed after a deadline. Making sure the instructor knows the limitations and pitfalls of the software is important in heading off any potential trouble.

But these issues that are inherent dangers in web-based projects are fairly easy to control and police, and talking about all of these potential problems actually made me realize how useful having students submit their work on a public website actually might be in dealing with the much more serious issue of plagiarism.

A Web-Based Project Puts Student Work on Public Display

A faculty member recently asked me how realistic a student’s claim was that a computer virus might have somehow caused that student’s research paper to be replaced by a published article the student was merely using as a secondary source. As the story goes, the student then unwittingly submitted this virus-infected file as their work, and now nobody’s happy.

While the virus scenario is not impossible, I’m an Occam’s Razor kind of guy, and of all possible explanations, the one that doesn’t stretch credulity is usually the right one.  But I’m not here to make a judgment on any specific case. I was pondering what would have happened if the student had been asked to post his work to a course website, where the paper would not just have been visible to the faculty member, but to all the other students in the course and to the world at large. Would the awareness of public exhibition have been enough to prevent the student from bald-faced plagiarism? I can’t be sure, but there’s something about being aware that you are writing for public consumption, that your work will be visible to everyone, that has a positive influence on the caliber of student work in general. I have had this result reported to me by several of my faculty members and I’ve seen it myself.

I’m not suggesting that faculty members now all move from having students submit papers to having them create webpages, especially not just to curtail plagiarism, but I do believe that it’s another thing to add to the list of the benefits of public display of student work.

About Mike Blum

Mike is the Academic Technologist for the Humanities at the College