Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Cynicism Leads to Evil Learning Software

Yesterday I read a talk, "Decode the Academy," that Barbara Fister, co-author of Research and Documentation in the Digital Age and a gifted librarian, whose scholarship focuses on teaching students to use the library effectively, gave at LOEX, a conference for librarians. I want to draw attention to a critique she made of one particular brand of citation software:

But before we do that, let's take a look at a student's-eye view of research. There's a clever piece of software on the market that explains very clearly how many students perceive the practice of putting together a research paper, because it's designed to help them do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s called Citelighter (http://citelighter.com) and it lets students go to webpages, grab quotes, save the bibliographic information so citations can be generated from it, and offers a space to glue them together in a document. The video on the website explains how it can make your life better. You go to your favorite sources, highlight the facts you need (and everything you find in a source is described as a "fact"), arrange them, add your own thoughts, and push a button. Your paper is done. Better yet, this process is socially networked so you can share your collections of facts and borrow them from others. No need to search out and read any sources at all. Perhaps more dispiritingly, the video shows how a student with dreams and an urge to create something meaningful is finally able to do that – once he has completed that tiresome paper.

It's a clever app for doing more efficiently what students apparently think they should be doing. And we have evidence that this is, in fact, exactly how many students perceive the practice of writing research papers, in the Citation Project (http://cite.citationproject.net), an ongoing study led by Becky Howard and Sandra Jamieson. They led an effort to gather and analyze first year writing samples from multiple institutions, largely in an effort to understand student research writing behavior to help them avoid plagiarism. What they found is that most students avoid paraphrasing or summarizing the source they use. Instead, they grab quotes and don’t bother to interpret them. They grab them mostly from the first or second page of articles. They grab what works, whether or not it's in any way representative of the main point of the article. And they use those quotes as building material glued together with a thin mortar of their own words. Most of the work reviewed in the study is “patchwriting” rather than analysis or argument. The study suggests students are able to find the kinds of sources we hope they will use—that’s the good news. The bad news is that they don’t read them. Reading is not required when you think the point is to harvest and arrange quotes. By the way, this is not a product of our digital era. Jennie Nelson studied undergraduate writers some years ago, back when the quotes they mined had to be copied from books, and concluded almost exactly the same thing: most first year writers gather material and quote it without engaging in the recursive process of reading, writing, and making meaning, the very process that we are trying to promote with these assignments.

Now Citelighter markets directly to students, and so the cynicism of their approach taps into the drudgery students experience with wretchedly designed research assignments, the kind that emphasize research mechanics and penalties  -- double spaced, 1" margins, MLA style, at least 6 sources, three must be from the library, no use of Wikipedia, piss-in-this-plagiarism-detection-engine-cup-before-turning-in-the-paper-because-if-you-plagiarize-the-wrath-brought-down-upon-you-will-be-like-no-judgment-you-have-ever-known kind of thing -- more than being curious and having something worth saying to people who might want to read it because they're curious about the same stuff. Citelighter knows that for many students, sadly, research assignments aren't about writing, they're about compiling a correctly cited and formatted document, one that meets a checklist of requirements, the least of which is to be interesting to read.

We're looking at/for software that at its base does what Citelighter does -- helps researchers save and cite sources, notes on sources, draft writing that uses the sources, and source sharing -- but we want software that offers those features (and others) in the service of research as inquiry and curiosity, not as a meaningless hurdle. We're looking for software that respects the writer's integrity, assumes it, and gives them tools for learning what integrity means and tools for managing their sources to avoid accidental plagiarism. We're looking for software that lets teachers see what students are doing, so that teachers can coach students beyond quote harvesting, help them assess sources, help them revise their thinking as they learn more, help them decide what role a source plays, and other acts of deeper reading and synthesis that the Citation Project and Jennie Nelson described as missing from most novice research writing.  We seek software that supports student-to-student sharing so that students can swap source leads, share drafts, co-author if a project calls for it and otherwise help one another in all the ways that faculty get help from colleagues when they do research. We seek to do no evil.

And here's what else -- we know for that software to work well, to really help writers, good design is essential, but never enough.  Instructors will need help on how to design research assignments that take advantage of what the software offers in two ways:

One, if software features address the mechanics and formatting and time management and proofing checklist aspects of the research project, if it helps address plagiarism, it addresses two areas that cause many teachers anxiety. If we can show teachers how the software lessens anxieties for them and students, then we can show teachers how it can affirm aspirations. No teacher really wants to read a boring, atonal, quote-harvesting research paper. It's mind-numbing and soul-crushing to end a semester doing that. But fear of students not being seen as correct by other teachers, or fears that research is too hard to teach and mechanical correctness in source handling is essential above all to route the scourge of plagiarism, leads to assignment designs that lead to mind-numbing, soul-crushing reading.

Thus two, the need will be to help teachers out of those fears, which can be deep-seated. Software alone won't budge it. Teachers' instincts will be to use their same assignments and practices and tone that just student writing down, that misplace emphasis, and that lead to wretched-to-read research. Having software that offers a better path isn't enough; teachers will need help taking steps on that path. The software, chosen well and designed right, provides an opportunity and means to find a better way to teach research writing, offering tools that never before existed, but teachers will need stories of how others like them changed their assignments to take advantage of the possibilities, workshops on drafting their assignments, practical advice on how to work differently, what to read and when, what not to  ready and why of students' works.

There is no magic software. Only software that makes magic possible.

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