Monday 21 January 2008

I blame John Motson

We have parents buying cheat essays for their children at university. We have teachers believing internet plagiarism is a big issue. We have a professor at Brighton University, Tara Brabazon, banning google and wikipedia, which she expands on here. We have a fuss about whether students should be doing A-levels or vocational studies.

All these are linked very closely together, and all are indicative of the state of both education and society in this country.

Looking at the cheat mills first, they claim, with positively Hainian disregard for moral values, that they are selling study aids not material to cheat with. Yeah, right.

People always have and always will do things regardless of their moral character or moral consequences. The particular taint that Thatcher introduced, and that has been taken up with such enthusiasm by some sectors of our society, was that people not only do it but think that it's right to do it, that it somehow has its own moral justification. Which it does not, it's pure Pharisaism. People are arriving at the level in the education system that I teach in without any notion of the value of learning or of self respect. The biggest problem with plagiarism is not that it is technically possible but that it is morally possible. To that extent it is a cultural issue and one that can only be tackled successfully by challenging why people do it, not how they do it.

But what bothers me most about these cheat mills is that somebody is writing the essays that get sold. Quite a lot of somebodies - people who do the same job I do, and presumably, like the students who buy their work, have no notion of value, truth or self respect. Every one of them is a cheap minded traitor to their profession.

As for the issue of plagiarism in general, there is much concern that it is on the rise. I don't know whether it is or not. I certainly believe that it is not on the rise because of the internet. Yes, the internet has made it easier for students to find things they can copy. But it has also made it a lot easier for their markers to find the stuff as well. The big problem about plagiarism is rarely realising that a student has done it - most plagiarisers are too thick to notice that the style change gives them away. The big problem has always been proving it. Before the internet, unless a marker was lucky enough to recognise the words being used and remember where they were likely to be found, it was very difficult to do. Now it is dead easy. This week I marked some end of course assessments for s web design course I teach. In one report there was a change of style. I googled some of the phrases and inside a minute I had the two sites from which parts of the report had been lifted.

After that the problem ought to be simple, but is often clouded by litigious students, or their even more litigious parents, or by a concern that throwing this student out means losing their fees and the top ups that go with them. But that's another story.

To return to the issue of students and the internet, I sympathise with Professor Brabazon, much as I think she has entirely the wrong answer. Google and Wikipedia have brought information to the masses in ways that it was never available before. The problem for real students is how to evaluate that information, and sort out the gold from the dross. The problem for teachers in our society is that we now have two generations of students who are learning at all levels of their social existence that learning is not nearly so important as achieving targets. It is, as I have blogged before, the ultimate failure of Thatcherism, that although it unleashed a great deal of creativity, it also taught people that the end of being prosperous justified any means to get to it, particularly if the means were cheap. The point of going back to Thatcherism is not to have another pop at the sainted MT, but to lay out the historical context which means that we have now a generation of parents in this country who think like that, as well as the students who are currently learning. I am sure that Professor Brabazon is a good teacher, and I am sure that her stance on Google is due to her utter frustration at having to sausage machine people through degrees who themselves don't want to be doing them. Otherwise we wouldn't meet our targets would we?

The problem of Google and Wikipedia is the problem of the internet in microcosm (though a pretty big microcosm, it must be said). There is no obvious authority to go to. Back in the good old days, knowledge tended to be mediated through people who you could see as authorities - teachers, professors, authors, critics, wise old men and women - who could tell you what was worthwhile and what was not. Nowadays, we all pile on to the web, and there is no gatekeeper, it's just us and them. And how do we set about judging what is worthwhile and what is not? Well, we use our judgement, for heaven's sake. We can learn, and most of us need to learn, to use it better than we do, but in essence that is what the modern citizen needs to do. Far better to teach it to them than to ban it in class and leave them at the mercy of the big wide web world when they go home. There are plenty of places where the skills of judgement can be learned. The Open University's Safari is a good example, with its structured approach to evaluating information based on presentation, relevance, objectivity, method, provenance and timeliness. I suspect the difficulty more often than not is that many students are seen as being either unwilling or unable to exercise their judgement to that extent.

And that brings me to the last of the issues highlighted in recent news, that of the old chestnut - "A level or vocational?" Nothing could be more symbolic of the clotting thrall that educational snobbery still exercises over our schooling system than the positively Victorian distinction that stills hangs over it between thinking and doing. You either do A levels, where you are taught to think, but usually at the expense of learning how to do things, or you are taught to do things, and heaven help you if you try to think. I don't blame teachers, who mostly do know how to teach. It's a more general force in our society that does it. There are many, many people in this country who do not think - I've met quite a few. But there are very few who are not capable of thinking, it's just that they live in a society where far too many are taught from day one, not just by schools but by the whole way our society operates, that thinking is bad for them. The boundary between the two that we thrown up and maintain with such force and such energy is entirely artificial. In the real world the only distinction between thinking and doing is that which we force upon it. People who do things need to think about them if they are to do them well. People who think about things need to do something in order to put those thoughts into action.

The web design course I teach on is a case in point. Some students join it with no intention of thinking about what they are doing; they cannot see the point. They cannot understand that if they are to do web design properly they don't just need a Dreamweaver manual, they need to think about what they are doing. They need to exercise their judgement about the design process they have to organise, about the vaarious compromises that will inevitably have to be made, about the principles and outcomes that they will have to prioritise and operationalise, about the problem solving processes they will inevitably go through, and finally that they will have to communicate to their customer in a way that enables their customer to make an informed decision about what they are paying for. No, just give me the manual and teach me the skill in a way that doesn't engage my brain, thank you very much, what do you think I'm paying you for? But there are plenty, thankfully, who do get the point and who benefit enormously from the course.

And on the other side of the fence, there are academics who cannot understand why web design is a level two university course. Surely that sort of thing doesn't involve thought? It's training isn't it, not our level of rarified thinking, unsullied by putting our hands to actually doing anything. They cannot understand that doing something does not taint thinking but gives it purpose and focus.

John Motson is fond of saying near the end of games he's commentating on "It's all academic now". I love Motson's commentary but not that phrase. He means by it, as a lot of other people do, that it's meaningless. He has been taught, like a lot of other people, that that is what "academic" means - purposeless, pointless, not the stuff of the real world, doesn't put bread on the table does it. Academic is the very opposite of that, it is not just real, it is more real than real. Academic helps people to understand what lies beneath the surface, to get behind the face of things to see how they really work. It is actually quite subversive because there are a lot of people in this world, usually those who like the status quo, who want us all to take things for granted. And students who have been taught to think real thoughts about real life never take things for granted again. I hope during my lifetime to see the end of this pointless, pointless, pointless distinction between "academic" and "vocational". I suspect that if it does come about, we will see a lot less plagiarism, because people only plagiarise because they can't see the point of learning for themselves. If learning engages the whole being, the thinking and doing being, it becomes a whole lot more exciting than plagiarism, and a whole lot more rewarding, whatever the parents are prepared to pay for.


jem said...

A great piece. I really enjoyed your thoughts. I can't personally understand why anyone who chooses to enter education after compulsory schooling would not want to try their best, do the work, write their own answers. Perhaps its laziness, coupled with thinking they can get away with lifting stuff from the internet. The internet is a great source of information, but needs to be used selectively and credited just like any library book.

Rob Parsons said...

Thank you, Jem. I agree with you, as much as you agree with me ;-)