Web Informant #282, 21 March 2002:
The temptation to cut and paste


I have been a teacher at our local high school now for six months, and just last week lost my virginity. I don't mean this in any sexual sense: I caught several of my students cheating on their homework.

It was a stupid thing, really, as these things are. The assignment was to answer a series of short questions after reading an article. The cheaters were so blatantly obvious that it took my breath away when I saw it.

I only teach one class, and it has been a joy and a wonderful experience overall. I have learned a lot along with my students, even on material that I thought I was pretty solid on. They continue to challenge my assumptions and take me in new and exciting places, as I try to do for them. The class is on computer networking, and goes deep into how networks work, what protocols run on them, and how to troubleshoot and analyze different kinds of network traffic and applications. The course materials were put together by a Colorado company called WestNet Learning Technologies and are quite good, even though they are mostly intended for a college-level audience.

To set the scene for my remarks, you should know that I teach this class in a networked classroom: each student has his own PC, and each PC is connected to the school network and the Internet. Each student receives his assignment via email from me, and sends me email back with the completed assignment for me to grade. There is also a class web page where I post the assignments along with other tidbits and links to important reference sites and other information.

But while computers bring a lot of richness to the class, they have also created more challenges for me as a teacher. Having constant Internet access means that my students are easily distracted and can check out web sites showing their standings in CounterStrike (a popular shoot-em-up game that some of them have invested about a million hours playing) each morning, sort of like a TV executive checking his shows' overnight ratings. Or they collect their email, or browse their favorite online stores. I have learned to pull the plug when I need to get their attention, something that I don't like doing.

And as I found out last week, being so involved in computers has created another opportunity for them to cheat.

All of my students spend a great deal of their evenings online, and of course on AOL Instant Messenger. It was easy enough for one to cut and paste his assignment into a message and within a few seconds others had it. When I received a bunch of emails within minutes of each other, all with the same text byte-by-byte, it wasn't hard to figure out what had happened.

This is nothing new. I remember copying entire passages out of the World Book Encyclopedia when I was little for my own school reports. But that took a lot more effort and was harder to detect (maybe). I have seen elsewhere in our schools a willingness to make liberal use of the cut and paste functions as students lift passages from various web sites in the name of "research." Several teachers in our district now require students to do library research with real books before they allow them to go to any online reference sources, and I think that is a good thing.

Lately, the news has been filled with plenty of stories about various professionally published authors who have had trouble discerning these wholesale copying efforts as their own work. So is it any wonder that our children are so blithe about it?

I hope my students have learned their lesson. But cutting and pasting will continue, and whether we call it plagiarism or dishonest or whatever, it is just too easy to take someone else's work and pass it off as your own. It is just too tempting.

I am not advocating that we turn back the clock and take away the computers in our schools. Or that we go back to the days of longhand writing. There is a lot of good that having computers in the classroom has brought, and I couldn't teach my own class without them. But my advice to you as a parent, or as a teacher, is to tread carefully down this path. Use the computer carefully, and understand what you are getting into. And teach your child this one lesson: that if you are going to use cut and paste, do not pass it off as your own work.

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David Strom
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