The Academic Dishonesty

I spent a whole lot of time this weekend writing a letter to the Dean about a case of “academic dishonesty” (i.e., cheating) in one of my classes. This is not fun for me--I do not cackle with glee, exclaiming, “I’ve got you now!” in a Darth Vader-like voice. (I only do that when I’m marking exams--kidding!)

My TA in the course--who is very sharp--noticed that some answers on a written assignment were, um, identical to those on a website you might have heard of: Wikipedia. Now, there’s nothing wrong with going to the Internet to look for answers to a question--I’m googling and wikipedia-ing (?) all the time. What is important is making the right use of your sources.

First of all, this means deciding, is it a credible source? Is the information presented credible? Is it correct? Does it apply to what I’m even looking for?

If you decide to use that information, it is essential (required, OK?) that you make it clear and explicit that the ideas you are presenting are not your own. You cannot just cut-and-paste your answers. No, no, no. At the very least, you must (again, this is required) paraphrase from the original source. That means that you have to put it in your own words. How do you do that? The UofA Libraries have great information on what to do, and how to do it. Student handouts are available at the Guide to Plagiarism and Cyber-Plagiarism.

Here are examples of good and bad paraphrasing, from the Purdue Online Writing Lab:

The original passage:
Students frequently overuse direct quotation in taking notes, and as a result they overuse quotations in the final [research] paper. Probably only about 10% of your final manuscript should appear as directly quoted matter. Therefore, you should strive to limit the amount of exact transcribing of source materials while taking notes. Lester, James D. Writing Research Papers. 2nd ed. (1976): 46-47.

A plagiarized version:
Students often use too many direct quotations when they take notes, resulting in too many of them in the final research paper. In fact, probably only about 10% of the final copy should consist of directly quoted material. So it is important to limit the amount of source material copied while taking notes.

A legitimate paraphrase:
In research papers students often quote excessively, failing to keep quoted material down to a desirable level. Since the problem usually originates during note taking, it is essential to minimize the material recorded verbatim (Lester 46-47).
See the differences? And look how the legitimate version includes a reference to the source of the information. All those names and dates in my courses? Those are citations to who did the research--I certainly didn’t do that study or make up that theory. It would be ridiculous for me to claim that I did.

You also shouldn't, say, hand in another student's work and pass it off as your own. Students may think that's harder to catch, but you'd be surprised. (Sorry, but I'm not going to explain how that works, but it is possible.)

The bottom line for all of this is: Do your own work. There is value in doing that--you’re getting an education. If all you do is cut-‘n-paste (and get away with it), what are you going to do when you’re in a job and have to do work for real? When there’s nowhere to cut from? That’s when you’ll be in real trouble.

Plus, if no one plagiarizes, I won’t have to spend time on the weekend writing letters to the Dean.

Why aren’t you studying?

Suicide Prevention - Getting Help

There were a lot of absences from my most recent exams. Mostly people were sick, although someone did admit to sleeping in (although that was a result of a different problem). So I had to deal with a lot of emails, explaining over and over again exactly what the procedure is when you miss an exam--even though the syllabus has all of that information there. It got to the point where, out of frustration, I just stopped checking my email over the weekend.

When I went back to my email, there were almost two dozen more messages to slog through. One of them, however, was different. It was from the parent of one of my students, explaining how their child had tried to commit suicide. It was quite a sinking feeling to read this email, even though the person didn't succeed. I want to raise awareness about the issue, and the resources that are available to help.

yellow ribbon

The Electronic Grades

Last term, I submitted my final grades on paper, just like I've done since the first class I taught in 1994. Some things have changed (we're using letter grades now, not the 9-point system, and the format of the forms changed in the 2000s, wooo!), but the process is still the same: I have to take the grades from my spreadsheet file and write them down, one by one, on pieces of paper which I have to physically hand in. It's bizarre to consider that, for courses that have multiple choice exams, the marks live in a digital world from the point that they're scanned onwards. Well, up until the time I have to write them down on paper.

Finally, at long last, we're moving into the 21st century. Starting March 12, instructors can (must!) enter final grades electronically. No more paper forms, no more writing things down. And no more transcription errors. There was this one time that I mis-copied a grade over. From that person's grade down, almost everyone was assigned an incorrect grade. There is a way to fix that--Change of Grade forms--but it was a nightmare for everyone involved. (I was told that this happens often, but that didn't make me feel any better.)

That's not to say that errors won't happen--not all UofA computer systems sort student names the same way. Test scoring, for example, puts Da Silva before D'Allaird, for example. This is opposite to how Microsoft Excel (and the rest of the universe) works. Some advice: if your name has a space, an apostrophe, or a hyphen in it, check your marks very carefully. Even capitals in the middle of the name can throw off the sort.

From the information given so far, it looks like I can click to enter each individual mark or, thankfully, upload a spreadsheet file. The system even allows marks to be imported from Moodle's gradebook. Unfortunately, I think we're still not allowed to post final grades on Moodle. Still, students should notice that final grades will be available on Bear Tracks sooner than before. It's nice to be in the 21st century.

Why aren't you studying?

The BitLocker

On January 5, 2012, the UofA announced new information security policies for the campus in order to comply with Alberta Government requirements that all organizations adopt standard information security controls. As noted on the UofA’s Colloquy Blog, staff are legally required to secure sensitive information. (Yes, I have “sensitive information:” spreadsheets with students’ ID numbers and marks. Potentially, emails are also sensitive information.)

Importantly, this policy is not limited to University-owned laptops (from the memo sent out by the Vice-Provost, Information Technology):

Personally owned and other external laptops storing University personal and/or sensitive information must also undergo disk encryption according to the standard.
That’s right--by UofA policy, I must not only secure, but encrypt my own laptop. This fact has royally pissed off a lot of faculty.

The “disk encryption standard,” according to the Laptop Security and Encryption Standard and Guidelines on the VPIT’s website says:
a) Laptops and other mobile computing devices must run a current, fully patched, and modern operating system at all times.
b) Users must store documents on laptops in a single specific area only (such as a home folder or directory).
c) The contents of the disk storage area specified in b) must be securely encrypted.
d) Laptops and other mobile computing devices must be configured to ask for a password after any period of inactivity, including after resuming from suspend/standby/sleep/hibernate status and on operating system start-up.
Let’s see, a) check, b) check, c) um, no, d) check. Sigh, I guess I have to encrypt my laptop.

The University Encryption Standards and Instructions on the VPIT’s website states:
The University advises that BitLocker must be configured to use the “TPM + PIN” authentication method.
Unfortunately, BitLocker is only available in Windows 7 Enterprise and Ultimate--and I’m only running Professional. Because it’s a personal laptop, I can’t buy Win7 Enterprise, so I had to upgrade to Ultimate. Naturally, the Bookstore was out of copies of the Win7 Ultimate upgrade disks when the policy came out. Once again, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. Eventually, they got copies in, so I was good to go.

Encrypting my 500 GB drive took a while; I let the process run while I marked exams. It finally finished, so I rebooted and...error messages everywhere, apps crashing, WTF? My system runs the OS off an SSD and all my data is on a separate, larger hard drive. BitLocker was supposed to pop up a password request during the boot process, but it didn’t because my system--a high-end Dell XPS, only about a year old--doesn’t have a TPM chip. For that, you have to buy Dell’s business-oriented (and very expensive) Latitude line.

It was possible to “unlock” my data drive, but only after bootup was complete, which is too late to get all my apps running properly--they already started up and crashed. Nothing in Microsoft’s documentation makes this clear. Grr!!

I removed BitLocker’s encryption. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to downgrade to Win7Pro, so I’m stuck with Win7Ultimate. I wasted hours of time and a hundred bucks and still don’t have anything encrypted. I'm still going to encrypt my computer, but with some other disk encryption software. Thanks for nothing, Microsoft. Nice job, UofA policy.

Why aren’t you studying?

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