Monday, July 25, 2011

Backlash Causes NYU Prof to Vow Never to Probe Cheating Again

This from the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

A New York University professor’s blog post is opening a rare public window on the painful classroom consequences of using plagiarism-detection software to aggressively police cheating students. And the post, by Panagiotis Ipeirotis, raises questions about whether the incentives in higher education are set up to reward such vigilance.

But after the candid personal tale went viral online this week, drawing hundreds of thousands of readers, the professor took it down on NYU’s advice. As Mr. Ipeirotis understands it, a faculty member from another university sent NYU a cease-and-desist letter saying his blog post violated a federal law protecting students’ privacy.

The controversy began on Sunday, when Mr. Ipeirotis, a computer scientist who teaches in NYU’s Stern School of Business, published a blog post headlined, “Why I will never pursue cheating again.” Mr. Ipeirotis reached that conclusion after trying to take a harder line on cheating in a fall 2010 Introduction to Information Technology class, a new approach that was driven by two factors. One, he got tenure, so he felt he could be more strict. And two, his university’s Blackboard course-management system was fully integrated with Turnitin’s plagiarism-detection software for the first time, meaning that assignments were automatically processed by Turnitin when students submitted them.

The result was an education in “how pervasive cheating is in our courses,” Mr. Ipeirotis wrote. By the end of the semester, 22 out of the 108 students had admitted cheating.

Some might read that statistic and celebrate the effectiveness of Turnitin, a popular service that takes uploaded student papers and checks them against various databases to pinpoint unoriginal content. Not Mr. Ipeirotis.

“Forget about cheating detection,” he said in an interview. “It is a losing battle.”

The professor’s blog post described how crusading against cheating poisoned the class environment and therefore dragged down his teaching evaluations. They fell to a below-average range of 5.3 out of 7.0, when he used to score in the realm of 6.0 to 6.5. Mr. Ipeirotis “paid a significant financial penalty for ‘doing the right thing,’” he wrote. “The Dean’s office and my chair ‘expressed their appreciation’ for me chasing such cases (in December), but six months later, when I received my annual evaluation, my yearly salary increase was the lowest ever, and significantly lower than inflation, as my ‘teaching evaluations took a hit this year.’”

Worse, Mr. Ipeirotis’ campaign aroused mistrust. Students were anxious, discussions contentious. He found teaching to be exhausting rather than refreshing. Dealing with the 22 cheating cases sucked up more than 45 hours “in completely unproductive discussions,” forcing him to focus attention on the least-deserving students, Mr. Ipeirotis said.

“The whole dynamic of the class changes,” he said. “They hear what I’m saying, but back in their mind they are thinking about cheating, cheating, cheating … It’s a vicious cycle. So, I get into class—I’m less happy because I had to deal with cheating the day before, instead of preparing better for the class. Students get less happy. I look at them. I don’t get positive feedback.” ...


Anonymous said...

I teach in Fayette County Schools. At my school I watched as my KTIP intern was forced by our anti-intellectual principal to back down on a cheating incident.

I, too, have learned that cheating, while not accepted by the school district, is not something it encourages its teachers to pursue. Our cheating policy, with its dire consequences is thus nothing more than a joke.

Anonymous said...

The above post reminded me of a similiar situation at my Fayette County Public School. When the cheating incident occurred, I was told to contact the guidance counselor, who said pursuing this was up to the teacher. I chose to pursue it even in the rather chilling atmosphere created under the former "It's about Kids" superintendent.

Present at the meeting were parents, the cheater, and staff memebers. The "cheating student" was treated almost as if s/he had done nothing wrong. In fact, at no time was s/he specifically told "You did something wrong." The school policy was outlined during the meeting, the consequences were stated, and then it was over. Because we have a team system, all the teachers of the student were supposed to be present. Clearly, my colleagues were angry with me for pursuing it. I looked away from the assistant principal the whole time.

Would I pursue a cheating incident again? No, unfortunately. I know the above-referenced student will cheat again. And that is precisely the problem. I have a deep admiration for the above-named professor at NYU, and I know why the he will not pursue cheating offenses again.

The only way to safeguard against cheating is for college professors to give essay questions, I fear, and if objective tests are given, different copies of the test must float around and laptops must remain closed. To prevent cheating in essays, the teacher must outline the questions s/he wants answered in each paragraph. This way, at least, the student cannot copy some generic essay off the Internet. Under no circumstances should an essay be given with a title like "The causes of the Civil War." I outline what I expect in each paragraph. One of my best professors asked me in an in-class essay to compare his treatment of the Civil War with the textbook. What a great question. And, in the end, his test rewarded the student who did completed the required reading.

I do understand, though, that anything that leaves my classroom can be prepared by someone else and then submitted as the student's own work, thus I make in-class tests a good portion of the student's grade.

Anonymous said...

As educators, it is certainly a challenge but assigning the blame to parents, institutional non-support,society or technology does not make it any more acceptable than it was generations earlier.

No one said teaching would center only on academic curriculum any more than it would be an easy endeavor. Can we truly be teachers if we present the tools but do not ensure that they be used appropriately?

I am sure none of us would be willing to place the lives of our family members in the hands of surgeons or pilots who not only cheated their way into their responsibilities much less possess the ethical mentality to perceive that harmful behavior as acceptable. Equally, I am sure that police officers and soldiers are often presented with tasks for which they would prefer easier paths but it is their commitment to duty which helps to maintain our greater security. Surely, we as teachers can withstand occassional social or professional discomfort in order to support true learning in our students. To not do so only endorse the behavior and we are no better than the transgressors at that point.

For me as an educator, ethics are not something that I can marginalize or base my enforcement on convenience. I am the teacher, I am responsible for the environment and the results, so I control the parameters to facilitate learning. Popular or not, easy or difficult to facilitate, it doesn't matter as I have a personal and professional duty to serve my students. I wouldn't excuse my own child's cheating any more than his teachers' acceptance of the practice, as doing so is undoubtedly professional cheating - no better than the child we are suppose to be guiding..