The Zero Textbook Cost

There's "free" as in speech, and there's "free" as in beer. Or, according to Wikipedia, gratis versus libre. This post is about free as in beer. (Sorry, no free beer will actually be made available. 🍺)

You might be familiar with the UAlberta SU's Be Book Smart initiative; this grew out of a national campaign years ago, protesting the high prices of textbooks. ("Grew" is probably not the right word, as the current initiative is much smaller in scope than the ambitious national campaign that kind of sputtered out.) Be Book Smart helps students know their options when it comes to textbooks (e.g., sharing books with friends, or looking for textbooks in the library). But it also provides information to instructors to raise awareness about the high costs of learning materials, and suggests lower-cost alternatives (e.g., using coursepacks, putting textbooks on reserve in the library, etc.).

Textbooks, however, are only one cost borne by students. Other learning materials also have a price. For example, some instructors require students to use online homework systems hosted by a commercial publisher. Of course, students have to buy an access code--just to do required homework! This strikes me as a bit of an over-reach.

I am mindful of the high cost of education. For 20 years, I have been using low-cost or no-cost alternatives in many of my courses. For example, instead of for-pay publisher-hosted online experiment websites, I have managed to find free alternatives like the American Psychological Association's Open Psychology Laboratory, which lets students run experiments and gather data--completely free. In some of my other courses, there is no required textbook, just a collection of readings in a coursepack. Even better, due to recent changes in copyright, I can make pdfs of these readings available to students for free.

An idea in academia that's gaining traction is that of Open Education Resources (or OERs). According to Wikipedia, these are "freely accessible, openly licensed text, media, and other digital assets that are useful for teaching, learning, and assessing as well as for research purposes." OERs include things like, well, Wikipedia. Completely free and open, and you can learn things from it.

In educational circles, however, OERs are most frequently brought up in the context of textbooks. Some people, out of the goodness of their hearts, have written textbooks--and have given them away, free. I have used one of these, by OpenStax, in my introductory psychology course (PSYCO 104). Although students were very happy to have a free textbook, I was disappointed in its quality. Sure, under the terms of the Creative Commons licence it was published under, I could have rewritten it--if I had a spare year or three. And although there are OER textbooks for introductory psychology, developmental psychology/lifespan development, abnormal psychology, research methods, cognitive psychology, and social psychology, OER textbooks are not available for all courses and topics. An increasing number of my colleagues are adopting OERs instead of commercial textbooks, and I'm on the lookout for high quality OER alternatives in the courses I teach.

Recently, the Office of the Registrar contacted instructors about a pilot project for the 2021-2022 academic year. They want to indicate to students in Bear Tracks which courses offer Zero Textbook Cost. I went through all six of my upcoming courses, and surprised myself to find that all of them qualify as ZTC. I do not require any paid online homework systems. I have coursepacks instead of textbooks as much as possible. And any required commercial textbooks in my courses have print copies on reserve at the library, or have ebooks available via the library website.

My hope is that by working towards Zero Textbook Cost I can help make education more accessible, and decrease financial strain on students. Do you have any other ideas that I can implement to save students money?

Why aren't you studying?

The Fall and Winter Terms: COVID-21?

Are you going back in person in the fall? This question has been on my mind a lot recently--likely on yours, too. As with everything COVID-related over the past year, I’ve been (hyper-)alert to changing conditions.

The Minister of Advanced Education (Alberta’s Quietest Cabinet Minister) issued a press release on March 18 to “encourage all post-secondary institutions, students and families to prepare for a full return to on-campus learning this September.” Oh, but there wouldn’t be any extra funding or anything. How encouraging.

In response, the UAlberta President wrote a brief, vaguely worded blog post, emphasizing the importance of safety in the return to campus. Previously, the Provost made a more concrete commitment on February 23, promising that Bear Tracks would reveal which Fall classes would be online and which would be in person on April 26. In other words, not all classes would be in person.

The problem is that there was a bit of a gap: Who would be making the decision to be in person or not? Would individual instructors get to decide? Or would there be some kind of formula, like classes larger than 100 would be online, whereas smaller classes would be in-person in a big room to space people out? No information was provided to front-line instructors at all. No worries, though, I’m sure that would get sorted out in time. Right?

I found that the Office of the Registrar’s website made some promises on behalf of instructors in their 2021-22 Academic Year FAQs for Students (archived; originally posted February 24): “We know that there may be circumstances that prevent you from attending in-person. If this is your situation, please contact your instructor to make alternative arrangements to allow you to complete the course outcomes.”

Er, what? I’m going to digress on this for a bit. If I’ve committed to teaching in-person classes and a student gets sick with, oh I dunno, some kind of nasty virus, I would have to accommodate them. How exactly? One option is that I would then--in addition to teaching the course in person--also record separate lecture videos. That’s a big nope. There’s no way I would have enough time to do that. Then the only other option would require some capacity to record the live in-person lectures and post them online.

I had heard some rumours that classrooms would be outfitted with equipment to do this. It would require a webcam and microphone, as well as some video capture software. Just to be sure, however, I contacted IST about their plans for this. No one at IST knew of any plan, so my inquiry was bumped up until it reached the Associate VP and Chief Information Officer. (For some context, low-level people like me do not routinely have direct contact with people so much higher than my pay grade. So you can imagine my surprise.)

I was glad to hear that there are plans to outfit some classrooms with a camera, mic, and document camera, which would allow Zoom or Stream2 to record and/or stream content. However, “the actual timing is uncertain because the work requires time and effort by tradespeople, and their ranks have been decimated by the cuts. I wouldn't want to have you plan all summer for hybrid delivery, only to have those plans wrecked by labour uncertainties.” So, thanks again, Minister of Advanced Education, and the Government of Alberta. Thanks for nothing.

(I contacted the Registrar about the promises their FAQ made on my behalf, and two weeks later finally got a reply. The FAQs were being re-worded. As of this writing, the promise about “alternative arrangements” has been removed.)

In the meantime, I received an email from the person who coordinates teaching in the Department of Psychology. I had a week to decide (by April 1) which of my Fall and Winter term courses I would like to be in-person, and which would be taught remotely. I reached out to the Associate Chair of the Department, who didn’t have any more information to go on.

But what about students? It’s well-known that many students are struggling through the pandemic. (Hey, I know all about the struggle.) Yet, what if everyone wanted to continue remote learning? Or the opposite? This information would help inform my decision. I set up polls for my classes and asked if students wanted to go back a) in person, b) online, c) it doesn’t matter, or d) don’t know. Here are the results:

Ok, so it looks like a fair number of students would still accept the remote/online option. But an almost equal number would not.

This is like trying to solve one equation with 100 unknowns. For me, one issue is the painstakingly slow vaccine rollout (The Atlantic referred to it as “Canada’s Vaccine Mess”). If everyone could be fully vaccinated by September 1, this would not be such a concern. Another issue is the greater virulence of the COVID-19 variants. How effective are the vaccines against the variants? Another unknown. What about my kids? Will they be vaccinated by the fall, and should they go back in person? Unknown.

For what it’s worth, I made my decision: Remote teaching in the Fall (due to my inherent pessimism); in-person in the Winter (due to my inherent optimism).

Why aren’t you studying?

The COVID-versary

Today is March 12. It’s my COVID-versary. Like an anniversary, but with 'rona. (I’ve been lucky and careful, and have so far avoided actually getting COVID-19.) Thursday, March 12, 2020 was the last time I taught classes in person, on campus, in an actual classroom. Nothing special happened. My advanced perception class did not have a quiz (it was a skip week); I lectured on face perception. In my human factors and ergonomics, I lectured on APA style (boring) and groupthink (much more interesting). I picked up my eldest daughter from school, and asked her if she minded of we went to Best Buy on the way home. I had picked out a nice microphone and was getting worried that I’d need it soon--you know, with the way things were going. In fact, I’d need it the very next day.

On Friday, March 13 (ugh, Friday the 13th) at 12:33am, the University of Alberta sent out an email announcing that classes would be “temporarily suspended” that day. After fiddling with the setup of my mic--it did not like one of my USB ports--I recorded and posted a lecture video to YouTube in time for my regularly scheduled behaviour modification class. I was off and running. And it feels like I’ve been running ever since. On the morning of Saturday, March 14, the inevitable happened and classes were moved to emergency remote delivery. And that’s where we are today, a year later.

Looking back, here are some numbers that summarize my past year:

  • lecture videos recorded: over 300
  • emails handled/received/sent: ~9,600 (Probably over 10,000 if you include automated notifications about meetings, exams, etc. That's more than two dozen emails a day, on average.)
  • Zoom meetings, seminars, and webinars attended: ??? (A lot. Really, really, a lot. I don’t even want to know how many. Got pretty familiar with all the video meeting software: Zoom, Google Meet, Skype, Webex, Facetime...)
  • major awards won: 1 (William Hardy Alexander Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, 2020)
  • awards that I nominated someone else for: 1 (my colleague Dr Jennifer Passey, who won the 2020 Remote Teaching Award)
  • professional haircuts: 0
  • haircuts by my wife (who is not a trained barber): like, 10? (I am NOT complaining. I think it’s amazing that in addition to being a physician, wife, and mother, she can also cut my hair so I look like a normal person.)
  • things ordered online: around 100 (Not all from Amazon. I ordered most things from local businesses online that I picked up in-store or curbside. I try to buy local first if I can to support local businesses.
  • online orders gone wrong: at least 5 (Just about everything that could go wrong did, with one exception: to my knowledge, no porch pirates stole any of my packages.)

Although I did pop in to my office a couple of times last spring, that was apparently prohibited (oops) so I have not returned in 11 months. There are no plants in my office, and on my last visit, I took home any perishable food. The last thing I want to see when I eventually return to my office is some infestation, like sentient plants, or sentient chocolate bars--or sentient plants that have survived by eating sentient chocolate bars. (Don’t laugh--I once had a mouse in my office.)

In the Before Times, I had a certain routine. I liked my routine; everything was...predictable. When the pandemic hit, that routine went out the window. Although we never had a true “lockdown” (just various restrictions), life was turned upside down. What to do but make a new routine:

  • get up and make coffee (priorities, people!)
  • get my kids up for online school
  • shave, personal hygiene, etc. (It’s important--it makes you feel like an actual person. In the short term it depletes your willpower, but in the long run it builds it up.)
  • get dressed: no sweatpants, no pajamas, no underwear-only days--ever! (Again, doing things like getting dressed signal that things are happening; it gives you some purpose.) On the other hand, I don’t wear ties anymore. (Ok, just on special occasions.)
  • get to work: check email first for fires that have to be put out, and disasters that have erupted overnight; send messages that I forgot yesterday (oops); check eClass message forums
  • then, it’s lunchtime, signaled by one of my daughters arriving at my desk announcing “Lunchtime!” Yes, lunchtime. That’s how long it takes me to deal with email: basically the entire morning.
  • Spend lunch with kids. Difficult times can create opportunities. I don’t want this all to go by and all I have to show for it We eat and talk and joke. Then, back to work!
  • record lecture videos: I try to be ahead by a class or two. Some of my colleagues have recorded lecture videos for an entire course over the summer. I thought I would do that, too. Ha! is all I have to say to that.
  • Throughout the day, there are problems. There are always problems. (Like the day the power went out. Hey kids, no school! Luckily, I had already uploaded my lecture video for the day and just had to flip the switch to activate it, using my cell phone.) Over the months, the technical issues have decreased, but there are phone calls to make or answer, appointments to take kids to, snow to shovel/grass to mow.
  • My wife will come home in the late afternoon, which is my signal to log off for a while. Mostly, it’s a signal to WHERE IS DINNER!? WHAT are we EATING!? Oh, the drudgery of making dinner. I don’t mind cooking, as long as it doesn’t take hours of standing and washing/peeling/chopping. Most days, I’m a put-the-ribs-in-the-oven-for-3-hours or slow-cooker-meat-and-veggies guy. Or, “It’s only -10 C out, that means firing up the grill outside!” When you’re at home all day, your spouse may come to the incorrect conclusion that all you’re doing is cooking dinner all day. You must disabuse your spouse of this notion. I wish she read this blog. Sigh.
  • After dinner is another bit of routine. We go for a walk as a family. After sitting on my butt for literally hours, my back is aching and I need to move around. There is a pack of coyotes living in our neighbourhood, so we try to go for our walk as early as possible. Sunny summer days are great. Dark, cold, snowy winter evenings when the windchill is -20 C are not so great. Any colder than -25 and I’m staying inside with my sore back and a mug of hot something with a splash of adult beverage in it.
  • Fridays we order takeout and have it delivered, again to help support local businesses. We don’t want our favourite restaurants to disappear! Cố Đô Huế forever!
  • Sometime we have family game night. I don’t think that would have happened had there not been a pandemic. (Silver linings?)

My kids have, by objective measures, been doing pretty well with their online school. Some members of my family have concerns about COVID-19 due to certain health conditions, so we all decided together that the kids would not go in person when the schools reopened. Subjectively, though, it’s been hard. Motivation is tough. Not seeing peers is tough (there’s only so much interaction you get playing Among Us for the millionth time). My eldest daughter has now been doing high school at home for longer than she was at her actual high school. Will that be something she will look fondly back on in 10 years? Doubtful. On top of my IT duties and role as cook, I also have to be the family psychologist. Unfortunately, I’m not a “real” psychologist, so this is one of the most difficult aspects of this WFH situation. I do what I can. Sometimes it’s just sitting and talking. I hope it’s enough.

I’m not a teaching robot. (Once I was called a “teaching ninja” by my Department Chair which was pretty cool.) All of this is wearing on me, too. I have to plan, record, and upload videos. I have to answer the never-ending flood of questions. I hear from students who have gone through all kinds of unimaginable difficulties, including death, disease, and abuse. There are days when I can’t even.

And I’m not alone. This recent report done by The Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that most faculty are feeling anxiety, frustration, and stress. More than half are considering changing careers, or even retirement. Me too: one of the seminars I signed up for over the summer was retirement planning. The way the Government of Alberta is funding (or rather, NOT funding) higher education, I may have to retire sooner than I expect.

Now there’s the imminent prospect of vaccination and the hope for a return to normal life. It can’t come soon enough.

Screw you, COVID.

Why aren’t you...oh, nevermind. I’m sure you’re doing your best.

What I Did on my Summer Vacation (2020 COVID Edition)

I write these “what I did during my summer vacation” posts every year, and I know there’s a certain sameness to them. Well, not this year! *heavy sigh*

To a large extent, I was ready for the pandemic. The first mention of an “unusual flu” caught my eye in the news in late December. I had paid close (horrified) attention to the SARS outbreak almost 20 years ago, and lived through the (fairly frightening) H1N1 pandemic (yes, it is classified as a pandemic) in 2009. During the latter, I stood in a line of hundreds of people for hours with my family to get immunized. My youngest daughter was still a baby. It was a sobering experience.

After that, I made sure we had a good supply of hand sanitizer, much of which I still had when it was otherwise impossible to find this spring. I dug into closets and cabinets, surprised to find how many containers remained after 10 years. I even had the foaming dispenser in my university office. So when the situation began spiraling out of control in China, I began to prepare. Let me be clear that I did stockpile important supplies, but I did not hoard anything. (What’s the difference? Stockpiling implies that you are storing things that you will later use; hoarding suggests that you have so much, you will never need or use them.)

Remember the whole toilet-paper shortage thing?

I spent early March getting ready for remote delivery, reading reviews of high-quality mics and webcams. By the time in-person classes were “temporarily suspended” on March 13, I already had a lecture video ready to go for my class on the 13th. How seriously did I take this? Let’s just say that some people treated the movie Contagion as entertainment--I took it as a training film.

Being the designated household IT guy, I had to help my wife set up her Zoom meetings and troubleshoot my kids’ Google Meetings for school. I upgraded our home internet, doubling the speed. Knowing that I’d be spending even more time than usual sitting at my computer, I tried to make my setup as ergonomically correct as possible. (Are you feeling sore after being at your computer for too long? Check out the recording of the Faculty of Rehab Med’s webinar on five tips to create a healthy workspace.)

This is what you get when you leave your phone
lying around and tell your kids not to touch it.

After rounding out the challenging Winter term, I was plunged immediately into Spring term with only a day or two to prepare. I learned a lot, very quickly, from being dropped into the deep end. My colleagues also rallied in an amazing way. I’ve been in more teaching-related meetings via Zoom in the past two months than in the past two years. (Thanks, too, to students in that spring term class who were incredibly patient, understanding, and gave great feedback.)

With spring term over, I could finally relax, right? Do what I heard that other people were doing during the lockdown? Binge-watch The Witcher? Learn how to knit? Sing opera to my neighbourhood? Nope. As usual, I worked. Among other things:

  • learned about and prepared for more remote teaching (note that there is are important differences between emergency remote teaching and online learning)
  • served as external examiner for an MSc student
  • Zoomed (it’s a verb now, right?) with colleagues across the university on an interrupted research project evaluating and redesigning a cognitive aid used in neonatal resuscitation
It has been a difficult time--for me, as for everyone. What do you do when the daily routine you have relied on has been shattered? You mourn the old one. And you create a new one. Having a defined structure to the day helps. You don’t have to decide what to do. You don’t have to burn through your precious, limited motivation and willpower. You just follow your routine. Every day, I get out of bed, shave, get dressed, have a coffee (not in that order). Spend the morning working. Take a break and make lunch for my kids. Eat lunch standing up. Go back to work. After the first wave crested, we were even brave enough to order food delivery (however, we treat the packaging like it’s radioactive).

Although I had a lot of work to do, I didn’t want life to pass me by, either. I won’t have this opportunity together with my kids again, so I wanted to make the most of it. In the evening, after spending too much time at our computers, we’d all go for a walk as a family. (There were so many great supportive chalk messages and pictures on driveways.) Then we’d watch a movie together, like Trolls World Tour, Onward, Hamilton, Batman Begins. Or play board games. Or Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

My memories of this time will include making Dalgona coffee (a.k.a. quarantine coffee or covid coffee). All the baking (pretzels, cupcakes, cheese buns, banana bread, nalysnyky, green onion cakes, and so many cookies).

Nalysnyky: Ukranian cottage cheese-filled crepes. 

And the “vacation” we had: a day trip to Lacombe. My old home town only had only one active case of COVID-19, so it felt very safe--like we were on a pandemic-free planet. (Yes, we all wore masks the whole time.) We did some shopping at the Lacombe Centre Mall, including scoring two dozen cannoli from Sweet Capone's. It turns out that after five months, the whole family was shopping-deprived.

Cannoli: Italian cream-filled pastries.

Now, I can feel the weather turning cooler. There are more leaves on the ground. Yeah, it’s time. Time to go back to work and school. But it’s going to be strange going back without leaving the house.

I know that many people are struggling--emotionally, financially, and not least of all, health-wise. My family has been lucky, and careful. I now have five different face masks, among them an X-Men one and a Ravenclaw one. I don't have these because they look cool. My wife is a front-line health care worker who is concerned for her patients' health, and for her own and her family's. My kids haven't given their auntie a hug in five months. I haven't come closer than 2 metres to my elderly parents; I don't want to give them a virus that could kill them. We've all lost things this year, but maybe we've also gained some perspective...on what's important.

Stay safe, everyone.

Why aren’t you studying?

The Remote Delivery

What a long strange trip it's been. TBH, it hasn't even been that long--just 3 weeks at this point. But it seems like forever ago that UAlberta announced that it was "preparing" to move to online delivery of courses (it was actually March 12). To show how fast things moved, literally the next day it was abruptly announced that classes were suspended, and then the day after that we were told to move to "remote delivery" of courses. (Note that remote teaching is not the same as online learning.)

Although it was announced that in-person classes were suspended on "lucky" Friday the 13th of March and were to resume with remote delivery on Tuesday, March 17th, I was prepared for this. Having kept an eye on the effects of COVID-19 across the world since late December, I already had a webcam for my office computer, and bought a new microphone right before they sold out across the city and online. My mic is a Blue Yeti Nano. (It's not the Wirecutter's top pick, but it's cheaper, smaller, and still pretty good--and way better than a crummy cellphone or laptop mic. Why spend money on an expensive mic instead of an expensive HD webcam? Research has shown that impressions of content are strongly influenced by audio quality.)

The green ring means we're go!

Because I've never recorded my lectures or taught an online, hybrid, or blended course before, I also had to decide on lecture capture software. The plan was to go through some of the different options, evaluate them, and pick the best. But because the landscape was changing so fast, I wasn't able to do that--I just went with the one recommended by my colleague Dr Jenn Passey: Screencast-O-Matic. I bought it the day before Loom (one product on my shortlist) announced they were offering their product for free to educators. The day after that, IST announced that they were making some lecture capture tools available for free: Stream2 (which I had never heard of), and Zoom (which I knew had serious existing privacy and security issues). Again, things were moving fast.
If I had waited, I wouldn't have had to spend any money and I could have carefully weighed the pros and cons of all the options--but I couldn't wait. It was important for me to have continuity for my classes. In a time of uncertainty, I wanted students to be able to rely on me. I hope I've been able to make the transition from in-person to remote teaching as smooth as possible.

 Note to my kids: daddy's busy!

UAlberta's The Quad blog recently featured some work-from-home photos of UAlberta employees. It was interesting to see the diversity of setups people have. I'm lucky to have an actual home office. Some people are working at their kitchen table, rec room, or in their windowless basement. Although that might get the job done, the ergonomics of it makes me cringe. (Here's a checklist for your desk setup, courtesy of Edmonton-based ergonomic company EWI Works.)

I miss being in front of a class, experiencing the energy of students. One law professor went viral with the Zoom videos of him teaching to a Pinocchio doll in an empty classroom. I'm comfortable doing my lectures in front of my computer, but like the law prof I'm not alone. Somehow I've managed to accumulate a variety of, um, companions? Apparently my wife has a thing for buying me cute hedgehogs (no, I don't know why). The blue M&M on the right is actually a computer screen cleaner. And then there's Hack & Slash for some '90s nostalgia.

Say hello to my little friends.

Next up, I'm teaching a spring class that's going to be remote delivery. I don't know what's going to happen come September. That seems too far in advance to even consider. Until classes resume in person and life gets back to normal, take care of yourselves!

Why aren't you studying?

What I Did on my Summer Vacation (2019 Edition)

One of the challenges I face when I write this post every year is how to tie together a bunch of very different things with a common theme. I think I've actually got one this year: fixing things.

One of the things I've fixed is: myself. Summer is when I try to schedule all of my medical checkups (complete physical, dental checkup, eye exam, etc.) so they don't get in the way of teaching. This year, I had even more substantial things on my schedule: gastroscopy and gum tissue graft surgery (yup, that's exactly as much fun as it sounds--good thing I like soup and pudding). So hopefully I'm patched up enough to keep going for another year.

My house is also starting to show its age; problems are sprouting up everywhere. Last year, we needed a new roof--class 4 impact resistance, because we kind of get hail every summer. This year, in no particular order, I had our new furniture fixed (after waiting 10 months for parts), replaced the seals and springs on a leaky bathroom faucet, replaced a malfunctioning toilet, got our wonky garage door adjusted, found out our electronic air cleaner was dead, repaired a hole in the siding of the house that was letting in water, replaced the front panel and igniter switch on my grill, installed a dryer vent cover (stupid birds were nesting in the vent--again), reattached a broken closet bar, replaced my ergonomic computer keyboard, fixed a shower head, replaced our dead microwave oven, replaced the sump pump hose that my neighbour ran over with her lawnmower (?), replaced our old vacuum, got the piano tuned, tried (unsuccessfully) to have Rogers fix a problem with my cell phone call display, got my soffits repaired, and replaced the expired CO detectors in the house. Whew!

Yup, it's a toilet. Bonus: it uses much less water than the old one.

Bird nest remains. Stupid birds!

In terms of work, I fixed things by rebuilding my PowerPoint slides from scratch for my behaviour modification course. I had already decided to switch my slides to widescreen format. Unfortunately, it wasn't as simple as clicking Design - Slide Size - Widescreen (16:9). Sigh. That meant I had to do it manually, with hours of copying-and-pasting. As I was going through every single slide, though, I was able to notice some content that needed updating, or could be worded better, or images and videos that should be replaced with higher-resolution ones. I also modified the slide theme (what can I say, design is important to me). I'm happy to say that my slides have never looked better--and I know a lot more about structuring PowerPoint slides for easier changes in the future. (Like what, virtual reality slides? I dunno.)

I also had to prepare for the changeover from iClickers, which are no longer officially supported on campus, to the IST-designed ePoll. I ran a pilot in my spring PSYCO 367: Perception course with no major problems, so I will be rolling out ePoll this fall in my big classes. I'm a little bit nervous about that (fingers crossed!).

There were also a few teaching-related seminars I attended in August, including the CTL Teaching Institute, and the Faculty of Science's Back to Teaching seminars.

Happily, my summer wasn't all work. Sadly, the summer weather was crummy in Edmonton. We tried to escape it by going on family trips, but the cold and rain followed us. I'll skip the boring details here, and leave you with these pics. (If you want the boring details, be sure to ask me in person!)
Mountain trip! Moraine Lake, Lake Louise, the view down Banff Avenue (in Banff, FYI)

Discovery Canyon in Red Deer (too cold & rainy to try it). Wildlife.

Treats! The yummy cannoli at Sweet Capone's (Lacombe),
and the ice cream selection at the snack bar at Aspen Beach (Gull Lake).

Why aren't you studying?

The Academic Misconduct

For me this past academic year was a bad one for academic misconduct, a general term that refers to a number of violations of the Code of Student Behaviour. These include cheating, inappropriate collaboration, plagiarism, and substantial assistance. This year, I had three cases that were sent for review (the most I’ve ever had in one year).

I am obligated to send these cases to the Faculty because making decisions about academic misconduct (and academic sanctions) is beyond my pay grade. When I notice something suspicious, I am required to document my findings and send them to a higher authority. No, not God: the Faculty of Science Associate Dean (Undergraduate), who then forwards the case to the discipline team, which includes a Special Advisor (Discipline) in the Faculty of Science, to determine whether there has been a violation of the Code of Student Behaviour.

The Academic Offenses
Obviously, for reasons of privacy, I cannot say much about the particular cases, or give any information that may identify the offenders. However, it is informative to look at what got these students into trouble. In all three cases, the common thread was that students misrepresented others’ work as their own. More specifically, in all three cases, there were passages from published works that the student either failed to attribute to the original authors, or did a poor job of attribution.

In all three cases this year, there were numerous incidents of direct quotes (or poorly paraphrased near-direct quotes) from other sources that appeared in the student’s written work. Including direct quotes is not inherently bad, and won’t necessarily get you in trouble. (In scientific writing, it is considered poor practice to include direct quotes; in a paper for an English class, on the other hand, direct quotes from the source material are used to support an argument.) When a student submits a paper, it is assumed that they are handing in their own work--with the exception of passages drawn from external sources, which must be clearly indicated as such. It may be that it’s an oops! moment. A student just forgets to put in quotation marks, or misses citing a source. You know what? That’s still academic dishonesty. If it happens once in a paper, it’s more likely to be forgiven than when every page contains substantial passages from someone else’s work that are not cited. In the cases I dealt with, there were many, many problematic instances--dozens, in fact. Don’t underestimate your instructors; we are pretty finely attuned to the difference between the writing of an undergraduate and that of a career academic, and the more there are, the more likely we are to find them.

The Academic Sanctions

In two of the cases, the penalty was that the students were given a mark of zero on their assignments. In the other case, however, there was a particular combination of factors that resulted in a harsher penalty of a failing grade and a comment of Failure Due to Inappropriate Academic Behavior added to the person’s transcript. This is not something you want on your transcript, whether you’re applying to graduate school, or for a job. It does not look good.

Although I don’t have any insight into the mind of the Deans, some factors that are known to affect the severity of academic sanctions include:
  • previous history of academic dishonesty
  • the level of the course and student (first-year vs. fourth-year; the latter are expected to be fully knowledgeable about what constitutes academic dishonesty and how to avoid it)
  • the nature of the offence (a couple of slip-ups, or widespread copying-and-pasting)

The Prevention
One reason why cheating occurs is that a student doesn’t know they are doing it. An easy way to address this is to develop skills in citing, quoting, summarizing, and paraphrasing. The Centre for Teaching and Learning has a collection of brief videos to help you learn these skills, and introduce you to academic culture.

Another reason given for cheating is that students run out of time to do a proper job. To avoid a time crunch, start early. There’s loads of good advice on how to avoid procrastination. Students in my classes know the details of every assignment in the term on the first day. You could start working on your end-of-term paper on the first day of classes! Okay, I realize that’s not practical. So I gave my class a soft deadline: they are to email me their choice of term paper topic by the mid-point in the term. In this way, I am making them start to think about their paper well before it’s due. (What’s a soft deadline? There is no penalty for not submitting it--but students will get an annoying reminder from me.)

Cases of academic misconduct make me cranky, for different reasons. First, in cases of willful misconduct, the student thinks they can get away with it. That’s a gamble I wouldn’t take. My teaching assistants and I are pretty sharp--and TAs get a mercenary glint in their eyes when encountering suspicious activity.

Second, it take a lot of time to write up a misconduct report. Two of the cases this year took me 10 hours just to go through the papers line-by-line and determine which sentences were plagiarized. Then it was another couple of hours to write the letters to the Dean. All this took time away from marking term papers, which is literally my busiest time of year. I will not be feeling any kindness or sympathy when I write up the academic misconduct report.

Finally, thanks to the vast majority of students who maintain their academic integrity, and earn their grades the hard way!

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