Category Archives: Reactions to class blog

Software de-grades

My biggest headaches this semester came from the software platform we used for the class blog. ‘Up’-grades happened this year which, incredibly, degraded functionality. As currently configured, sites@psu is not fit for large-class teachingThe software now creates unnecessary work for instructors and frustrations for students — all while simultaneously creating novel ways for students to cheat – and no way to catch them.not-fit-for-purpose-stamp

  1. Most irritating was the degraded ability to find students’ work. We used to have an alphabetically-arranged Contributions page visible to the world. It enabled students (and us) to easily see with hot links what work they had done within a fixed time window and to find their class mates’ work. That made it easy for them and, most important, it made it very easy for us to grade. The 2016 ‘improvements’ hid all that. Now, no one on the outside can find anything and the themselves students have to log in to the system and run a report on themselves. And the graders? We ran endless reports. Click click click. Tick. Tick. Tick.
  2. During the grading of the third blog period, someone changed the method for running reports on students. You are in the middle of grading hundreds of blogs and someone replaces one lousy search algorithm for another lousy search algorithm — all for no obvious gain?
  3. The search widget does not search by author. Wtf?
  4. We had to rely on students (!) to go into their profiles and make their names correct. As administrators, we couldn’t do that. Students appeared by default with their user I.D. (afr3). They could then call themselves Drew, Andy, Andrew or leave the afr3. We had to ask them to call themselves what our class lists call them. Otherwise we have to be like detectives to figure it out. My favorite: Alexander called herself Xander. When you are searching a drop-down list of 300 students arranged alphabetically by first name…
  5. Yup, that’s right. For much of semester, you could not run reports on a students’ surname or user id.  There was just a drop down menu in alphabetical order of first (!) name. At one point we had a list of students arranged by first name followed by the remaining students arranged by ID number. I did so much scrolling up and down that list.
  6. The default time zone for the blog? Central Russia (no kidding). We figured that out after the first deadline cut off a lot of students’s last minute work.
  7. Some moron set up a clone site. This might have been in response to my complaints about losing the contributions page. I like that they tried. I did not like that they failed. But worse, they made it so the students could post to the clone site. You can see it here (check out the URL!). Once we figured out that there was a live mirror site, I disabled student access to it. But too late. You can still see on the clone site the students who posted to it. That’s the work we did not grade until student complaints unearthed it.
  8. The ability of the grading team to get into the site and find students completely stopped for many hours during a grading period (10/22/16). We have a team of five graders trying to get it all done in less than a week and we lost the better part of a day — without explanation or apology.
  9. My instructor blog vanished completely for six hours (10/17/16). Again no explanation or apology.
  10.  Despite my endless exhortations, many students post at the last minute. Some of this last-minute work took more than 12 hours to become findable because the blog under pressure does not post straight away. We know this because some work appeared after the graders had graded a student… Oh, the complaints (from students and graders).
  11. There is no way to tell if the site is about to exceed its storage limit. Right now, my dashboard tells me that with something in the order of 2,000 posts this year, similar numbers for the classes of 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, as well as this Reflections blog, I have 0.00% of 2.93GB used.
  12. There is no log. That’s the thing that would tell you who had done what on the site when. That’s what you need to check whether students are cheating or misleading you. And that matters because:
  13. Unbelievably, the site lets the student determine the publication date of a post. They can do work after a deadline and make it look like they did it before the deadline. I discovered that early in semester and I could not believe it. If you make it possible for students to cheat, some will. Maybe it is good there is no log. I can not tell how often we were taken for a ride.

Juggling 300+ students is hard work, especially on top of a busy research and administrative life. Time is everything. Brain space is everything. I struggle to put into words my feelings about the hours and energy I wasted dealing with software-induced student complaints and concerns. I dare say the College is also unimpressed with the cost of the extra hours the graders had to spend tracking down students’ work. Writing this post has taken even more time I will never get back. I hope it leads to constructive action on someone’s part. Whose, I have no idea. These days, you never get a person to deal with.

In 2010, tech guru Chris and others persuaded me that we could make blogging work for a large class. And indeed, Chris made it work, year after year. For the first five years, the blog software never got in the way of teaching and was never a pointless time-suck. Those were the good old days. In those good old days, Chris had control and was able to build the site himself to aid my pedagogy and grading efficiency. No more: sites@psu got outsourced to folk who don’t believe in local control. Last year, the change of platform was all mildly irritating. This year, I’d have given anything for the old functionality.

bad-softwareIndeed, if this year’s performance had happened in year 1, I would have given up blogging and returned to conventional term papers. And I will unless we get back the functionality we once had.  I continue to think blogging is an exceptionally good teaching tool. But this year, the hassle didn’t justify the pedagogical gains. Not even close.

The only good thing I can say about this year was the speed with which the folks at Texas-based Campus Press (to whom things have been outsourced) got back to me. I learned that if you put URGENT or EMERGENCY in the email, you got a rapid response. As to the responses themselves? Well, here’s one: “The reports did change and unfortunately at this point I don’t have any way to change them back to the previous version.”

Of course a real software ‘up’grade would involve a gain of function. Two new things I would like: (1) A text editor for comments. If you are an administrator editing an existing comment, a text editor appears. But not if you are a student. They have to use html, if you can believe it. That has caused so many utterly pointless headaches for students and TAs over the years. Fixing that would not be an innovation. It would just be making existing tools accessible to actual users. (2) Automatic plagiarism software. This would be an innovation. It would be great to have something that we can turn on after deadlines, and which compares the material on the blog with the rest of the internet (and not least SC200 blogs from previous years). The process doesn’t need to be instant (it could chug away for a week). If that’s too computationally intense, something simpler could still be very useful. For example, just taking well-formed sentences from every blog post (or even a random sample) and doing a google search for that text string would be good. If that’s too much to ask, then how about something that checks the current semesters posts against SC200 blogs from previous years? Plagiarism is a big issue for teaching via a blog. Be great to have a blog that worked with the instructor to make things better.

Mind you, I’d just settle for one that didn’t just make things harder.

A failed time-management carrot

To encourage time management and to discourage procrastination and last minute panic, I give 2% extra credit for anyone who can get their blog posts done five days ahead of time. That’s extra credit for no extra work whatsoever. You’d think everyone would want a piece of that, especially since 2% extra credit is equivalent to raising test scores from a B to an A or blogging scores from a B- to a B+.

Nope. For blog period 2, just 20 students got sufficiently organized to get something for nothing.

How to give citations to sources

For reasons that are unclear to me, many students seem completely uncertain as to how to cite sources. I think this is because their teachers have insisted on particular formats. My son tells me that one of his college professors spent a whole hour teaching the class how to do APA format referencing. Googling APA citations, I see he is not alone (example). I have to say I feel like citation format is a unimportant problem in academia. The key principle is to make sure the source is clear. How that is done I leave up to students.

For SC200 the blog, live links can be used to direct the reader to the source, and I think that makes things readable, accessible and looks much better. But if traditionalists want to give sources at the end, fine with me. We don’t care how it is done. But we do care deeply that it IS done. Unless something is widely understood general knowledge, citations MUST be given or it is theft (you have used the ideas/data/concepts developed by someone else and passed them off as your own).

So here’s some examples of ways to do it:

  1.  As Read and colleagues (2001) pointed out, it does not always make sense to complete a course of antibiotics even after you feel better, despite what the doctor says. This is because…
    end of post:
    Read, A.F., Day, T., & Huijben, S. (2011) The evolution of drug resistance and the curious orthodoxy of aggressive chemotherapy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA. 108: 10871-10877.
  2.  The doctors advice to complete a course of antibiotics even after you feel better does not always make sense (Read et al. 2011). This is because,,,,,,
    end of post:
    Read, A.F., Day, T., & Huijben, S. (2011) The evolution of drug resistance and the curious orthodoxy of aggressive chemotherapy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA. 108: 10871-10877.
  3.  Andrew Read and colleagues have argued that the doctors advice to complete a course of antibiotics even after you feel better does not always make sense.
  4.  ….The doctors advice to complete a course of antibiotics even after you feel better does not always make sense. This is because…

SC200 2016 Students: (1) If you want to do it some other way, no problems, but it must be clear what the source is. If you are worried about whether your way works, email and ask. (2). Note that I am assuming here that you have put things in your own words. If you are using someone else’s words, you need to email and ask permission to use them and if that is granted, we will talk about the use of quote marks etc. That is to avoid plagiarism — see p. 9 of the 2016 syllabus.

Blog Period 1 plagiarism: the numbers

Students are prone to plagiarism when blogging. This year I made extraordinary efforts to head that off.

The grading is now all done for Blog Period 1. Five possible plagiarism cases were identified. One of these was a false positive, three were teetering on the edge of disaster but hadn’t quite gone there, and one was egregious and I am now pursuing that as an Academic Integrity Violation.

This time last year, three possible cases were identified and all three had to be pursued through the violation process. So that is two fewer AI cases this year. Maybe, just maybe, worth the pain?

Blog Period 1 results: a tale of procrastination

Inaction dominates the results.

Of 353 students, fully 86 did nothing at all. A further 84 did so little, they failed. On top of that, there were 85 D’s. Oh my.

More positively, lets focus on the students who engaged. We awarded 2 A-s, 2 B+, 12 B-, 25 C+, 45 C‘s. And among the students who did enough to pass, the average grade was 71% (C). On the face of it, not too terrific either, but I feel ok about it at this stage. If students could take on a new learning exercise and do well from the get-go, what would be the point of the exercise? We want to teach critical thinking and expression of that critical thinking, and that takes some practicing.

Significant improvement will happen. Each student gets personalized feedback, and I will go over some generic things in class next Tuesday. But for now, one of the graders listed the most common faults as:

  • Bad sources lacking scientific research
  • Summarizing a single article by a journalist
  • Unfocused posts that read like a stream of consciousness and don’t have a main idea or organization
  • Statements like “I read about x and you can too, (link)” without any discussion.

Students who think hard about the feedback, take a good hard look at the rubric, study examples of good practice (rather than examples of average or less than average work which by definition dominates the blog), think about the advice of the TAs (Brian, Abby from 2015), chose topics with some teeth and put some effort in…well, the improvements can be spectacular.

A couple of students did do very well from the off, and I look forward to seeing what they do when they really pull it out of the bag. I especially liked An Apple a DayPets to the Rescue and Is Your 8am Harmful? were also pretty good. I might teach a session on Will Joining Greek Life Increase My Drinking? — that seems like a question to catch this audiences’ eye, and an analysis ripe with confounding variables. And I continue to be pleased by the thought some people put into evaluating the safety of what they do to themselves in the name of fashion.

Of course, for procrastinators (roughly half the class), doing even enough to pass would be a hugely significant improvement…

Extra credit for getting organized

This year I decided that part of my responsibility as an instructor was to try to develop good work habits in the students, not least time management. So I offered 1% extra credit to students who fulfilled the blogging requirement in Blog Period 1 and a further 2% if they got it done early.

(There are three Blog Periods, and I take the best score from three, so they don’t have to blog in the first period — but they would be nuts not to, since the required amount of work is least for the first Blog Period and the personalized feedback we give sets them up for a good score in Blog Period 2…. and, and, maybe most importantly, who [really, who?] would want to be working in Blog Period 3, the end of the semester when every other course has work that needs handing in, finals are looming and flu season sets in??????).

Incredibly, just 12% of the class managed to get the work done early. More amazing, 40% of the class did not do the required work.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why students need to be taught time management. procrastinate-now-and-panic-later-20

What I've done this year to try to head off plagiarism

Dear Academic Integrity Committee

After last year’s fiasco regarding plagiarism on the class blog, I thought a great deal about what to do this year. Particularly helpful were discussions with the STEM Gen Ed discussion group (their horror stories also added to my motivation). Several articles I was directed to had an impact (1, 2, 3, 4), as did the advice of the ever energetic Julia Kregenow who has actually done courses on promoting academic integrity in our student body (sad that such courses have to exist, but good that she does them and passes on accumulated wisdom). So these are the changes I instituted.

  • Whenever I was discussing plagiarism in class, I asked the students to turn off their phones. Phone-induced inattention was the only alternative explanation for one of last year’s cases (though I still maintain that case was just plain and simple dishonesty).
  • I instituted a fourteen question plagiarism test, which tested the students knowledge of what plagiarism is, what good and bad practice looks like, how the policy and penalties are implemented on SC200, and resources to turn to. I took much pleasure in using as examples of bad practice the writing you got to see last year, and more pleasure showcasing a blog post from a student who really could write complex things in her own words because she the took the time to understand what she was writing about.
  • I required students to get 100% on the plagiarism  test. They got as many goes to do it as they wanted, and the test was live on Angel for six days.
  • That test ended six days before the end of the first blog period, and I made clear in class that anyone who had realized that they might have stepped over the line could still edit out the plagiarism before the first blog period deadline.
  • I refused to grade any blog work for anyone until they achieved 100% on the plagiarism test. This meant 21 students were excluded from Blog Period 1.
  • In the syllabus, I greatly extend my discussion of academic integrity and in particular, the discussion on plagiarism. In class, I implored the students to read that discussion, although we know of course that most never read that part of syllabi. But I know you do when you are reviewing the cases I bring to you. I hope you like the wording this year. Personal highlights:
    • I tried to be as positive as I could (“My promises to you…”)
    • I tried to explain why cheating is bad, beyond the risk of getting caught.
    • I tried to make clear what is honest work, and what is cheating.
    • I made very clear my sources, and made clear that much of the wording was lightly edited from Julia’s syllabi, used with permission.
  • In the syllabus, I made explicit the penalty for plagiarism on the blog. I did this to make it clear to the students how serious this is and more importantly to limit wiggle room when we (me and you) are post-hoc trying to figure out what penalty to impose. I think it important that the penalty be very significant, totally transparent and applied equally to all offenders. The bottom line is that on SC200, plagiarists will get a maximum score for the entire course of a C+ on first offense. In practice, their score will likely be a lot lower and they may even struggle to pass.
  • Most onerously, I made it clear that if anyone wanted to use anyone else’s words in a blog post or comment, they had to email me before hand, explain why and get my express permission. This was Jackie Bortiatynski‘s suggestion. It generated a lot of email, but also made clear to me that many students really do have to be taught what is fair citation practice and what is plagiarism. If all the e-traffic heads off even one offender, that will have been more time efficient than bringing a student before you.
  • I reduced the workload in all Blog periods, but especially Blog Period 1. There is a strong indication that students are tempted to cheat if, close to a deadline, they find an overwhelming amount of work and not enough time to do it in. So I cut the number of required posts and comments from 5 and 13 to 3 and 10 for the first blog period, and made it 5 and 15 for the other two Blog Periods (from 6 and 16). I am not sure what I make of challenging students less in order to try to prevent a cheating few.
  • I discussed in class how much time blog posts might take, so students who left it close to the deadline would not be taken by surprise. I got the TAs to join this discussion, so current SC200 students could hear the experience of former SC200 students.
  • I added extra credit for students who blogged ahead of deadlines.
  • I added extra credit to encourage students to post in the first blog period so they would not be overwhelmed in later blog periods.
  • I said in class, and restated in an email to the class: If you ever feel even the slightest hint of temptation to commit plagiarism, don’t….. Instead, reach out to me. I am always available to discuss any circumstances that got you to the point of thinking about it. But not after it has happened. Once you have tried to pass someone else’s work off as your own, whatever the circumstances, I will begin academic violation procedures, as described in the syllabus.

These were on top of the things I did in previous years, namely I

  • discussed plagiarism in class, using examples from past class blogs of bad and good practice, and making clear the severity of the issue and the consequences of commiting plagiarism,
  • took class attendance on the day that discussion happened so we know who was there to listen to the class discussion, and
  • e-mailed the class discussing the seriousness of plagiarism, how to recognize it, avoid it, and reiterating the details in the syllabus.

Today is the deadline for the First Blog Period. So as the graders and the plagiarism software go to work, we will discover over the next week if all this has made any difference. We discovered three serious cases last year, two egregious beyond belief. I hope all my extra efforts this year lead to zero cases. And that if it does not, and I again find myself in front of you, that all this extra work means we can more efficiently and fairly penalize the offenders.



Flirting with failure

risk_failureWe now have a lot of grades in. Currently there are 60 students failing the class, and a further 12 just 5% away from that cliff.

It’s all due to the blogging. Almost all of the imperiled 72 have done no blogging at all, or feeble amounts. They’ve left it to the last blog period. Incredible. Let’s hope nothing goes wrong. Otherwise, it will be a brutal lesson in time management.

Roast stuffed chicken with vegetables

The distraction

What can I do to help? We’ll write to all 60 saying they will fail if they don’t blog (one year, a student claimed he thought it was optional). And I will lecture them in class on the need to start blogging now. If they leave it to one minute to midnight and then get sick, personal problems, computer glitches…

And I will talk about Thanksgiving. Most students figure they will catch up Thanksgiving week. They hardly ever do. Instead, they go home and collapse, enjoy the home cooking, TV and sleep. And then..well, then there are five days left in the busiest part of the year.