Peer pressure to beat plagiarism?

Student plagiarism and downright cheating cause problems in campuses all over the world and there’s much hand-wringing about what to do about it. There’s a limit to what can be achieved through education, policing and anti-plagiarism software.

Given the lack of consensus on effective solutions, some research shedding light on this contentious area is very welcome. Times Higher this week reports on research by two Australian academics, Rebecca Awdry and Rick Sarre, who surveyed students and staff at an anonymous UK higher education institution. They have uncovered a mismatch between, on the one hand, the stated reasons given by students for not cheating and, on the other, the measures which staff thought would be effective. Students overwhelmingly cited ethical considerations for not cheating, rather than fear of punishment. Staff, however, were convinced that the best way of preventing plagiarism was to improve detection rates and impose harsher penalties.

The authors of the report have made some interesting suggestions based on these findings. One was an anonymous “wall of shame” highlighting “convictions” for plagiarism. Another was to harness peer pressure by having students involved on disciplinary panels.

The first suggestion is similar to one I made at one institution where I worked (regretfully, it was never implemented). My proposal was to have posters in the exam rooms based on the signs you sometimes get on dangerous roads. Instead of “10 deaths and 65 collisions here in the last 5 years”, they could read “10 students have a misconduct penalty marked on their transcript after cheating in last year’s exam” or “5 students reported to the Solicitors Regulation Authority for cheating…” etc.

I’ve always suspected that a concrete message showing that some students have had their careers blighted could be a powerful deterrent. Students know that cheating is unethical, but it’s easy to be tempted to do something unethical if you think no one will ever know.

Ms Awdry’s “wall of shame” (and my posters) are intended to be anonymous, but isn’t an anonymous wall of shame somewhat oxymoronic? It’s taken for granted that the outcomes of disciplinary panels are highly confidential, but if they were publicised that would certainly be a major deterrent. Although this approach has a certain attraction, personally I think it would be too punitive: the range of existing punishments is harsh enough.

Which brings me to the second proposal: having students on disciplinary panels. I can see major benefits in this. In my experience, the vast majority of students are usually outraged by hearing about cases of cheating. In fact, students will often report their colleagues because they feel (quite rightly) that they are the victim of this “crime” and that the prevalence of unfair practices undermines the value of their degree. Although the general student body would still not find out the details of any cases, the involvement of students on the panels would be known and the fact that they are taking place and the penalties imposed would soon circulate.  And the shame of behaviour being exposed in front of one’s peers would be enough to deter some potential infringers.

I suspect the biggest problem faced by disciplinary panels would then be to rein in the students, who would probably turn out to have much more punitive “hang ‘em and flog ‘em” attitudes than the staff.

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Where do the law students go?

Student enrolments on the full time Legal Practice Course have fallen for the fifth year in a row, according to a report in this week’s Law Society Gazette, leaving nearly half the approved LPC places in England and Wales unfilled. Given the dearth of available training contracts, students are probably right to stay away from the LPC: who wants to invest so much money and a year of your life in a vocational course which prepares you for a job which may not exist?

And yet….I’m interested in what happens to the 1,000s of law graduates who (presumably) still want a career in the law and who would previously have gone on to the LPC and to qualify as a solicitor. Unfortunately, it’s not the case that those who choose to do the LPC are the best qualified – it’s far more likely that they are simply the wealthiest and the most willing and able to take a gamble. The LPC, therefore, is fast becoming a massive, anti-meritocratic barrier to entry. Given the vital role the legal profession plays in our society, this is regrettable to say the least.

The banking crisis and recession only account for part of the fall in training contract numbers. The legal profession is undergoing structural changes and will continue to do so for several years yet. However, that doesn’t mean that, as a society, we need fewer lawyers. What it does mean is that we need different lawyers and far more variety and flexibility in legal training. We also need to recognise that there will be a variety of different legal roles in the future.

Those of us involved in legal education have a two-fold challenge with our current students. We have to prepare them for a world which is changing in unpredictable ways and we also have to give students good careers advice, which strikes the right balance between realism and ambition. The days of virtually automatic progression from LLB to LPC to training contract to qualification are dying, if not dead yet. We therefore have a broader duty as well – it’s time to develop better, more effective and more affordable routes to satisfying legal careers. At present, too many young people are being unnecessarily left behind with feelings of disappointment and failure.

Has the LPC had its day?

The solicitors’ profession is just embarking on a consultation which could result in a revolution in the way that solicitors are trained and authorised. The SRA’s response to the Legal Education and Training Review – Training for Tomorrow – is only 20 pages long, but the proposals which are outlined affect each stage of training from the qualifying law degree to continuing professional development and all steps in between.

Consultation will continue throughout 2014, so the final shape of the new framework will not be known for another year or more, but a possible outcome is a system of testing competency standards at the point of qualification, without prescribing any specific pathway/s to achieving those standards.

The SRA describe their proposals as “radical” and they are not wrong. The old sequential pattern of academic-vocational-practical is on the way out, to be replaced with a blank sheet of paper, on which individuals, firms, ABSs, universities, professional law schools can write their own training plan.

I suspect many firms will fill their blank sheet of paper with the old familiar training plan and recruit law graduates with qualifications indistinguishable from those currently mandated. But I hope that the profession and education and training providers will be more imaginative and seize the opportunity to devise a variety of brand new training pathways.

For example: do we really need the Legal Practice Course? The LPC has served us well but was devised at a time when the profession was much more homogeneous that it is today. Is it appropriate to have a single course which tries to prepare trainees for today’s huge variety of legal work, practices and business structures?

The LPC also suffers from a serious structural limitation. It tries to teach students vocational skills in a simulated environment. Many of these skills could be better taught in the workplace. The SRA review opens up the possibility of breaking down the barriers between the academic, vocational and practical stages of training, bringing knowledge acquisition closer to the office and the courtroom, and practical skills closer to the classroom and lecture hall.

Such a radical approach would require a new mind set from employers, most of whom currently demand that trainees start work ready to earn fees, and from education providers, who would need to become far more flexible. But it could produce entrants to the profession who are equipped with deeper legal knowledge and a wider range of work-related skills, ready to serve the public confidently from the moment of qualification.

Support for on-line education

Those of us involved in teaching and learning often talk amongst ourselves about many issues, including whether on-line education is effective or not. Sometimes, it’s useful to get some views from people without a professional interest.

Gallup have done just that, by conducting a survey of over 1000 adults in the USA, and found that the majority take a reasonably positive view of on-line higher education (reported today in Inside Higher Ed). The table below shows the responses to the question whether the respondents thought that on-line education was the same, better or worse than traditional classroom education, in relation to the features mentioned.

  Online better The same Online worse
Providing a wide range of options for curriculum 33 39 23
Providing good value for money 33 34 27
Providing instruction tailored to each individual 23 31 41
Providing a format most students can succeed in 23 42 30
Providing high-quality instruction from well-qualified instructors 15 37 43
Providing a degree that will be viewed positively by employers 13 33 49
Providing rigorous testing and grading that can be trusted 11 39 45

 

Source: Gallup survey  Online Education

Most adults think that on-line is positively better for the range of options and good value for money. On all of the factors bar one, the majority consider on-line to be at least as good as traditional education, if not better. The only negative perception relates not to the respondents’ own views but their opinion of how employers might regard on-line qualifications. It’s interesting that people think that employers might be less accepting of different routes to qualification, even though they personally think the learning is just as good.

The question about testing is a close call: although the majority thought that this would be the same or better on-line, a full 45% didn’t trust on-line testing and grading.

They’re probably right about that – we haven’t yet come to a point where on-line testing has the same rigour and breadth as doing it the old-fashioned way and that’s currently the main factor holding back further development of purely on-line teaching.

It might also explain another finding of the survey. The questions referred to above related to courses with some on-line elements, not necessarily exclusively on-line. When asked to rate purely on-line college courses against traditional four-year degrees, the majority thought the former were “only fair” or “poor”.

It would be interesting to do a similarly rigorous survey of university lecturers to see whether they are more, or less, positive about on-line education than the general population.

Today’s graduate: pre-packed and oven-ready? Or merely raw ingredients?

In recent years, we have heard repeatedly from employers and their representatives that today’s university graduates are not “employment ready” and lack the soft skills and attitude required to be useful in the workplace. Universities up and down the land have responded by ramping up their careers services and introducing new initiatives to teach employability skills.

But are employers being unfair to graduates? Are their complaints anything more than a manifestation of the perennial perception of the middle-aged that the youth of today are lazy and complacent and “don’t know they’re born”?

John Brooks, Vice-Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, seems to think so. He recently declared that he was “fed up with being told that our students are not employment ready” (reported by Times Higher) and was supported by Toni Pearce, President of the National Union of Students, who challenged the notion that today’s students are any less likely to be punctual, motivated or entrepreneurial than those 25 years ago.

They were disagreeing with John Longworth, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, who is convinced that graduates’ lack of soft skills is a serious problem for industry.

There is no shortage of surveys and anecdotal evidence demonstrating that the perception of this deficit is widespread among employers. However, as far as I’m aware (readers – please tell me if I’m wrong), there isn’t any widely accepted measure of employability skills and few studies based on objective criteria rather than perception– which means that we can’t tell whether this widespread perception is accurate or not, and neither could we tell if the situation were to improve.

The mantra that graduates are not ready for employment has become so entrenched as to become a cliché. If that’s all it is – a cliché based on an age-old prejudice about the young – no amount of soft skills coaching and communication exercises will help.

Should paralegals be regulated?

There’s been a dramatic increase in the number of paralegals employed by law firms in the last few years and all the signs are that this trend will continue. Many, including the Legal Education and Training Review, have argued that this burgeoning workforce needs to be regulated and put on a proper professional footing.

However, the Legal Services Board, the supreme oversight body for all branches of the legal profession has come out against regulation of individual paralegals, arguing instead that the firms employing them should have a responsibility for ensuring that they are competent to perform whatever tasks are allocated to them.

The LSB proposals are out for consultation until December, but it seems likely that their view will prevail. This will be disappointing news for paralegals, many of whom are highly skilled and carry significant responsibility. They deserve some proper professional recognition, rather than simply being known as someone who is “not quite” a qualified lawyer.

The LSB, however, is more concerned about risks to consumers than the sensitivities of the workforce and, from that point of view, their position has some logic to it. As virtually all paralegals are employed in law firms (or, increasingly, alternative business structures) which are themselves regulated, there is no real need to impose requirements on the individual employees.

Instead, employers will need to look at their recruitment, training and supervision practices. The professional bodies will be asking them to show that they have proper systems in place to ensure the competence of their paralegal workforce and that they are managing the risks to consumers in a proportionate way. In-house learning and development teams and legal training providers will need to respond with some new thinking and innovative solutions.

Can a computer help you swim?

People often ask me whether e-learning is “just as good” as face to face. Now, as a rule, I’m not inclined to be evasive, but my stock answer is “it depends”. However, I go on to add that e-learning methods can be effectively deployed to teach a much wider range of knowledge and skills than most people give it credit for.

 

There are certain practical skills which e-learning is not (yet) good for. I wouldn’t want to be a passenger in a car driven by someone who had learned to drive purely at a computer. Someone who jumps in a river after a series of virtual swimming lessons may regret not having signed up for a course at her local pool. Computer simulations are getting better and better and can certainly support practical classes, but cannot entirely substitute for them.

 

Sceptics tend to identify the lack of a social dimension as a key weakness of e-learning, compared with attending a face to face class. It’s certainly true that, for most people, learning is more successful if it’s a social activity: we learn from our fellow students as well as from teachers and resources. Social learning can encourage deep learning as well as develop critical thinking and the ability to formulate arguments coherently. However, it’s a mistake to assume that e-learning is a solitary activity. There are many ways in which social interaction can be facilitated even among students attending a purely on-line course.

 

I recently participated in a short-lived MOOC run by Coursera (ironically it folded because of technical difficulties, but that’s another story). One of the best things about the course during the few weeks that it ran was the terrific sense of community among the learners, of whom there were thousands. It was a MOOC on on-line education, aimed at teachers and lecturers. I met and had stimulating discussions with teachers from all over the world – all via a simple on-line discussion board.

 

Sometimes a course has to be entirely on-line, whether to reach the target student audience or for reasons of resource. The designer of the fully on-line course has to give careful thought to creating the most suitable social framework for the intended students. For many students, the social dimension afforded by social media will be just as satisfactory as a live experience, and, indeed, often more so.