Outsourcing schoolwork

Rentacoder.com is a site where businesses or individuals can solicit bids for programming projects. According to this Wall Street Journal piece, many of the bidders are Indians and Eastern Europeans charging, at maximum, not much more than the cost of a monthly Metrocard.

It is therefore not surprising to find the following posting:

“I need help with 5 homework problems in Visual Basic 6.0. I am capable of doing these on my own, but I work very slowly and I really need time to devote to other classes before finals. So, it would be easier just to pay someone else to do them for me…. I need these done by Thursday May 4th by 5:00 P.M. Central Standard Time at the latest, but I’d be interested to know how much more it would cost to have these completed Wednesday (tomorrow) by 9:00 P.M.”

Of course it has always been possible to hire someone to do your schoolwork. It probably hasn’t been this easy, anonymous, and affordable, though. And why stop with programming projects? Developing countries produce underemployed political science or English PhDs as well; many barely clear $500/month teaching at state universities. Today’s plagiarist may find it quite affordable to hire scholars to write A or B-grade papers that pass plagiarism smell tests.

Should we be then integrating plagiarism education into every course? Aside from hammering in why plagiarism is unethical, teachers might take the time to explain what skills a particular project imparts and what the student therefore loses if he can’t be bothered with it. How have you dealt with this issue in your work? (On another note: some schools have surrendered to technology and have instead begun loosening standards on cheating, as this article describes.)

Wikis in group authoring

Noticeable shifts in style and grammar in a group-written paper can make it difficult reading. Further, a student may sometimes develop her assigned section in isolation from the rest of the paper, failing to build on what others have written. I’ve talked about these issues with students I have worked with. But until I picked someone else’s brain and found this page on wikis in education, I wasn’t sure how to make the collaborative writing process easier.

This is one way wikis can help. Students set up a wiki site for their drafts, with each student getting a page to write her assigned section in. After each section has been revised, say, two or three times, each student moves on to the next section and applies her revisions. She then moves on to the next section, and so forth. This may force each student to engage and build upon what others have written, as well as be committed to the overall focus and quality of the paper. Wikis smooth the workflow by eliminating the cumbersome process of emailing a Word document because several versions of the paper can be accessed via any Internet-connected computer. Wikis store a document’s history and allow “rollbacks” of changes — no messy strikethroughs and red fonts in Word’s “Track Changes” feature to deal with. I’d love to hear what others think of this process as well as any other thoughts on collaborative writing.

Digital Audio Comments in the Age of iPod

If margins of student papers aren’t enough real estate for your comments, or if you don’t have time to meet all students individually, then Jeff Sommers has a low-threshold application for you. He suggests creating digital recordings that you can insert in Word drafts, directly email to students, or deposit in Blackboard’s Digital Drop Box. Your operating system should already have voice recording software; if not, you can use free, cross-platform downloads like Audacity. Here are some sample commentaries. They are like student-teacher conferences you can take home and listen to in a more comfortable setting with your paper in front of you. Sommers’ recordings are on average only about 5 minutes long, but he covers a lot of ground. Compared with the usual scrawlings on margins, the audio comments are clearer, more precise, more personal, and tackle at length how strongly/weakly ideas are developed. This can encourage students to be more thoughtful about revision instead of basing it solely on where the red ink is. (Here are some interviews with students.) Does anyone think that such an application would be useful in his/her work? What would be the hurdles for you (self-consciousness, time, learning the technology, etc.)?

Attack of the Conference-Ready Undergrads

Something noteworthy at the gem that is the MIT OpenCourseWare site: an undergraduate course on Economics Research and Communication. The course description indicates that “primary activities are oral presentations, the preparation of a paper, and providing constructive feedback on classmates’ research projects.”

Constructive feedback involves group peer review at several stages of the writing process. In nine of the thirteen three-hour sessions, students have to: (1) present initial ideas for a paper; (2) present research plans; (3) participate in open forums for discussing project difficulties and questions; and (4) make a presentation based on the first draft. Class discussions always follow presentations.

All these are probably nothing new to many of you. My undergraduate years, however, offered no such communication rigors in my major, no requirements that process be subject to peer scrutiny. How the economics curriculum was implemented at my university implied that economics was a solitary pursuit — you only needed to impress your professor on paper. Any other skills were not the school’s concern.

So I came to the U.S. shy, self-conscious, still somewhat in “I hope I don’t get called on in class” mode. Teaching has helped mitigate some of my reticence; I think I’ve evolved into a self-assured instructor. But addressing peers and superiors can still induce significant levels of apprehension, though I’m finally at the point where academic conferences and presenting at department seminars are inescapable duties. (I’ve hence sometimes bemoaned the deficits in my undergraduate education.) Here’s hoping that university departments are on track to turn out graduates more communication-savvy than I ever was.

Speaking of Low-Stakes Writing . . .

Michael Leddy’s entry on How to Email a Professor made me think of when, way back when I was teaching, I somewhat irritatedly clamped down on how students emailed me. After the first few “hey prof,” “im ur student,” or “IM CONFUSED. HOW DO YOU CALCULATE GDP PLEASE HELP ME” volleys of the semester, I’d come to class and insist to students that I was not their chat buddy and that therefore their emails should reflect our professional relationship. While they did not need to overdo the formalities, at a minimum they had to sign their emails (haironfire@xxxx.com leaves no way of identifying the student, let alone course and section) and attempt to use proper punctuation and grammar. Students might as well use emailing professors as a dress rehearsal for future workplace communication, where they might be more harshly judged. Whether or not the course is a CIC, students can practice trying to carefully phrase questions, articulate positions, and apply common rules of courtesy. Having professors set minimum email standards seems like a low-cost way of getting students into the habit of thinking about what they write. What do others think of this?