Monthly Archives: February 2014

A little birdie told me, part 1

Painting of blue birds
How does one use Twitter to teach geology?  I expected to find all kinds of great undergraduate-appropriate Twitter feeds reporting on the latest geology news from around the word in 140 characters or less.   To my surprise, I didn’t find what I was looking for.  Let me be clear about what I didn’t want:

  • Very narrow range of topics (all volcanoes, all the time)
  • Very broad range of topics (lots of science but only a little geology)
  • Focused more on an institution or community than on geology
  • Focused more on opinions and conversation than on geology
  • Language suitable for practicing specialists
  • Tweets consist only of links

I know—picky, picky, picky—but I prefer that students not spend their time sifting through irrelevant or unintelligible tweets.  I did find a feed from Nature Geoscience that offered a variety of interesting geology-related headlines appropriate for my audience.  Unfortunately, a Nature article is not the best tool for convincing students that science is comprehensible.

Apparently there is an unfilled niche for the National Geographic of geology Twitter feeds.  Tweeting about geology stories in a way that is accessible to the average undergraduate is something I could do. But let’s be specific—how exactly would this work, and what would students do with it?

The intended product would be edifying tweets that direct students to additional information.  The additional information could be from any of the following:

So how would students use this in a way that would justify the amount of work I’d have to put into it?  I could tweet about three or four geology-related stories at the beginning of each week.  Students would write a blog post for the story of their choice consisting of four multiple-choice questions.  They would receive points for writing questions, and for correctly answering another student’s questions about a different story.  If all attempts at answering a particular question are unsuccessful, the author would receive a bonus.  If a student attempts to answer a question but concludes that none of the options are correct, he can challenge the author.  Challenges would be decided in class by a vote after a short debate.  The winner would receive additional bonus points.

There are logistical issues, and some ground rules are required, but I would be satisfied with the minimum level of engagement required to complete the necessary tasks.  Even under those circumstances it would be hard to avoid learning something.  Imagine what would happen if students were motivated to make their questions as difficult as possible while preventing their own errors and catching the errors of their peers.  Aha!  The learning trap is sprung!

Categories: Learning technologies | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Anti-plagiarism au naturel

Spider web with water dropletsThe process of screening students’ papers for plagiarized text is disheartening and mind-numbingly boring.  Inevitably I find a non-trivial number of cases despite efforts to inform students about academic integrity.  For those of you who have done your level best to teach your students about plagiarism, and are completely baffled by their continued transgressions, I recommend the following as therapeutic reading:  Baggaley and Spencer (2005), “The mind of the plagiarist,” Learning, Media and Technology, 30-1, pp. 55-62.

After the last round of plagiarism patrol, I began to wonder if a tool existed that would automate the process of comparing my students’ answers to their textbook.  This, I found, is territory well trodden.  There are many tools, free and otherwise, which can be used to check for plagiarism.  Most of these would not help me because they search freely available online content, and that excludes my textbook.  One tool that might help is Turnitin.  This company maintains a repository that includes proprietary content, but whether it contains my textbook in particular is difficult to determine.

A good overview of the debate regarding Turnitin can be found in a March 2004 University Affairs article entitled “The cheat checker”.  Turnitin gained prominence when students raised philosophical objections to its use.  One complaint was that Turnitin adds students’ papers to its repository when they are checked.  Students argued that they shouldn’t be forced to give up their intellectual property to a for-profit company.  What isn’t mentioned is that students’ papers don’t have to be added to Turnitin’s repository to use the service, and if they have been added, they can be removed.  I wasn’t able to find this information at, but it is a fairly common detail in documentation prepared by schools that subscribe to Turnitin, such as the University of Regina.

The other objection was also the explanation offered by the University of Saskatchewan as to why it opted not to subscribe.  (We will have to take the word of the University Affairs article on this one, because I couldn’t find a relevant policy statement by the U of S.)

“Gordon Barnhart, university secretary at the University of Saskatchewan, says his institution “wrestled with this issue” of anti-plagiarism software a couple of years ago. In the end, he says, “we very consciously decided not to go that route” because of the reverse onus it places on students.”

Léo Charbonneau, “The cheat checker,” University Affairs, 15 March 2004

This is the argument that by checking students’ papers for plagiarism using Turnitin, we automatically assume they are guilty of cheating.  If this is true, then presumption of guilt is not limited to the use of Turnitin.  When I grade papers, I am always comparing students’ answers to my own mental database of what the textbook says, and looking for similarities.  The only difference is that Turnitin does it more efficiently and accurately than I can… if not as cheaply.

It is unlikely that I will catch all instances of plagiarism that come across my desk, and the fact that some cheaters will prosper diminishes the value of academic credentials for everyone.  Some would put a finer point on it, though:

“Whatever the causes [of plagiarism], the presenters agreed that teachers who do not act to create a culture of honesty in their classrooms, and who do not enforce ethical standards, lack integrity as much as their students who cheat and plagiarize.”

“One step ahead of the palm pilots: Creating a culture of academic honesty at the U of S,” Bridges, January 2003

Without the right tools, the degree to which I can enforce ethical standards depends an awful lot on how well my spidey sense is working that day.

Categories: Challenges | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

The plaid adventures

Puppy dressed in plaid“Will this be on the exam?”

Answering “no” to that question is a great way to send whatever I’ve just said right to the bottom of a student’s Things I Have to Care About list.  Imagine the consequences of answering “Yes, but the exam is optional.”

Yet this is the approach John Boyer (a.k.a. the Plaid Avenger) takes with his World Regions geography class at Virginia Tech.  He and his technical assistant Katie Pritchard have pioneered innovative uses for classroom technology, enabling him to offer his students one-of-a-kind experiences.  Earlier this week the ILT community learned more about how John does it.

In his course, students choose how they will accumulate points toward their final grades.  They can take exams and quizzes, but they can also tweet in the persona of a world leader, follow and comment on news feeds, and view and report on international films.  I wondered, operating on the principle that the threat of a measurement means that there will indeed be something to measure, how he can offer so many choices and still point his students in the direction of the necessary content.   If “content” means a specific set of facts and figures, then it seems he doesn’t.

It appears to be possible (in theory, and in 2012) for a student to earn more points than are required for an A by doing activities that do not involve predetermined content.  An example would be following and commenting on a news feed: a student could be learning about any event, occurring anywhere in the world.

I imagine there is specific information that John Boyer would like his students to learn, like where Africa is.  Judging by the amount of work involved (in 2012) to get points by means other than exams and quizzes, students probably do opt for activities where content is controlled, and could face questions about things like the location of Africa. But what if a student fails to learn Africa’s location during the course because he or she is not required to produce that information?  Maybe this isn’t a problem.  If John Boyer’s students develop a life-long interest in global current affairs, odds are they will eventually want to know where Africa is, and more besides.

Is this for everyone?  It depends on the goal.  In the context of geology, it would be a great way to produce a generation of students who, for the rest of their lives, inadvertently scanned gravel driveways for interesting rocks, and the walls of stone buildings for fossils.  I would be more cautious with geology majors, who need specific knowledge to succeed in their advanced classes, and whose grades are used to decide if they are sufficiently equipped for more advanced material.  If an A means more about work ethic than knowledge, we could be setting students up to fail.


Categories: Teaching strategies | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

So much for the low profile

Ruby and Suzie excavateThis post is my first assignment for the Introduction to Learning Technologies course offered by the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness at the University of Saskatchewan.  My job for this post is to talk about who I am and why I’m taking the course.  I’ve covered the “who” part on my About page so here I’ll stick to the “why.”  It’s pretty simple, really- I know there are a lot of creative and effective ways to apply technology to teaching… but exactly what they are and how to use them is a little beyond me.  Sure, I can PowerPoint with the best of ’em, but when it comes to twittering (tweeting?) in class, or using blogs, or creating my own multimedia teaching tools, I suffer from an uncharacteristic lack of imagination.

Thus far we’ve looked at a number of applications in class, and I have a better appreciation for the breadth of tech options out there.  The thing that has made the biggest impression on me, however, is the whole idea of having an e-presence online.  As a non-facebooking non-twitterer (tweeter?) I had hoped to keep my digital presence and the inherent dangers and annoyances to a minimum.  Our instructor changed my perspective a bit when she pointed out that not creating your own digital presence means that someone else can do it for you.  She recommended googling our names to see what was already out there about us.  Wow.  What a disconcerting experience.  I scrolled through six Google pages before finding an entry that didn’t apply to me…  I learned that someone keeps track of the “genealogy” of my PhD, that somewhere someone rated my goodness as a human being, and that my PhD thesis was available for sale in paperback.  (No, I don’t get any money for that.)  Of course, at the top of the list was a certain website (to remain unnamed) where disgruntled students go to vent their frustrations about their instructors.  Why are the gruntled ones so much less likely to comment in places like that?

My conclusion is that the things I do actively to define my digital presence are more likely to have a benign effect on said presence than not, and that it is better to have some influence than none at all.  I’m going to miss my anonymity, however illusory, but there are benefits to being part of this brave new world: I can open Twitter accounts for my dogs!

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