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January 18, 2008

The copy-and-paste generation

Information skills seem to have been in the news of late (e.g. see the item entitled White bread? from a few days ago).  The debate, in the UK at least, is now fueled by reports from the BBC that "more than half of teachers believe internet plagiarism is a serious problem among sixth-form students" (based on a survey undertaken by The Association of Teachers and Lecturers).  Hey... not only is the Internet full of unreliable information but some of those duffers are cutting-and-pasting it into their essays without even removing the Web advertising material! :-)

More seriously, we've tried to make a small contribution to this area through the Eduserv Foundation, funding five information literacy projects last year.  Of these, we are currently providing continuation funding to two of the original recipients - John Crawford at Glasgow Calendonian University, who is working on The Scottish Information Literacy Project: working with partners to create an information literate Scotland project and Netskills, who are developing information skills and plagiarism awareness materials and workshops for the UK schools sector.

I think that the questions around plagiarism are really interesting.  Ignoring those who simply want to cheat or save themselves some effort, learning how to form and express our own opinions based on the writings of others, how we assess arguments, how we express agreement with existing views without simply copying them word for word are really important.  Looking at my own children (who I encourage to use Wikipedia for their homework by the way, but who I also encourage to read books and other information sources) I know they find these skills very difficult to grasp.  I'm not convinced the curriculum, even at A level, helps much, or as much as it could.

As a parent I can say "you can't cut-and-paste that, you've got to read it and then put it in your own words" but the reaction is mixed.  Superficially, they tend to respond with, "why, what's wrong with those words - they say what I want to say!".  Well, yes... but...

To put it somewhat crassly, if I can mashup music why can't I mashup text?  I wonder if there is a genuine difference in mindset here?

Even relatively simple skills like knowing how and when to quote and cite other's work don't necessarily come naturally.  Primary schools, in my limited experience, are quite good at getting younger children to remember to say where they got their information from, in project-based homework for example.  But I'm not sure how well that limited grounding gets built on in secondary school?

The answers in this area, it seems to me, have to focus on what is most effective for learning outcomes.  Unfortunately, I'm not really in a position to judge that - other than in a man in the street kind of way.  On that basis I encourage my kids not to copy-and-paste too much or too often and hope for the best!


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I tend to think that generally, you learn when you teach. In this case, explaining using your own words is just an example of that...

Thanks. That's a nice way of thinking about it.

I find that my children cut and paste and then use the thesaurus feature in Word to alter the text. Recently, I suggested a sentence to my daughter. She considered it, judged it too 'sophisticated', and altered a couple of the words, again using the thesaurus feature. Which I thought showed a rather more 'sophisticated' grasp of things than keeping the orig sentence would have ;-)


I blogged something very similar in reaction to the same BBC article.


I love your phrase a mashup of text.


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