There has been much hand wringing on the web lately over plagiarism. Today, Silicon Republic highlights the story of two young entrepreneurs who have brought the Write my Assignments business model to Ireland. Yesterday, we hear of a German Minister who may have plagiarised chunks of his PhD, and allegations of plagiarism levelled at Saif Gadaffhi's LSE Thesis ('The Role of Civil Society in the Democratisation of Global Governance Institutions" - I kid you not), and last year the Chronicle featured a tell all piece by a paper writer for hire ("The Shadow Scholar")
This business model is one of the web's many surprise gifts. It was always possible, but only the internet provides the speed to quickly locate someone who will, for the right price, put together your assignment for you. Tools like TurnItIn cannot beat the model when the work is original. They cannot know who wrote it.
Some say we should respond by teaching ethics, as if ethics is something that could be taught in a university lecture to 19 year olds. This is fantasy. The fact is now, that like it or not, services like this are always a click away, and when students have the right combination of stress and money, they will be used. A rich, lazy kid might use them all the time. A hardworking one, fighting for a grade and on the edge of breakdown, might use one once, in a dark and guilty hour. By the time my daughter goes to college, I expect there will be software capable of writing the papers at negligible cost - the sons of Watson. Hand wringing over ethics cannot close the door technology has opened. We must deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.
The underlying issue is a broken assessment design. Handing out essays and paper assignments was always a fairly cheap way to do assessment. You can come up with an essay title and scratch out quick rubric on your way to the lecture, and your students will never know. Essays are a pain to mark, but it can be done in relative peace later, or outsourced to a hungry Postdoc. But assessment, I am told, comes from a latin root which means 'To sit beside'. To sit beside a student, and develop a good understanding of their knowledge, strengths and weaknesses is a difficult and time consuming thing, impossible in large classes. You can grade an essay without even knowing their name - indeed, for highest stakes, you are supposed to.
Perhaps students getting others to write their papers is ok? Managing outsourcing is an increasingly important skill. Knowing what to outsource and to whom isn't always easy, nor is judging the quality of the work unless you know the domain.
You can probably still get away with the assignment model for low stakes, formative assessment.If your students are dumb enough to pay someone else to write a low stakes formative assessment paper for them, really, a University Education isn't their calling. You'll catch them at exam time.
Ironically, in this electronic age, conventional proctored exam models remain immune to plagiarism, and have much to recommend them. Even if open book, or open web, they will still test the capacity of a student to assemble an original coherent written argument without assistance.
But there are plenty of alternative models. Making students do a presentation instead of an essay is more likely to trip up people without original work, especially if there is time for Q and A. You can require the other students to submit their assessments of the presentation and grade those too - a good opportunity to help students learn to examine the work of others critically.
Team projects are also a good one. The effect of external support is diluted, and likely to be easier to detect (no conspiracy is stable beyond one member) and larger, more complex projects are harder to outsource, especially if evidence of process (weekly team meeting reports, etc.) must be produced.
But at a deeper level, maybe the form of the output is the problem? Why should our credentialling system focus so heavily on measuring a students ability to write something? Should it not rest on their ability to do something, create something or even achieve something?