Suddenly All your Students are Online

“You can’t teach people everything they need to know. The best you can do is position them where they can find what they need to know when they need to know it.”
Seymour Papert

Every aspect of our society is currently getting upended by the coronavirus. Every day, news agencies and politicians throw numbers at us. While many of the numbers lack the context for proper understanding, some things like reducing the size of groups are evident.  For education, the most impactful recommendation is the CDC’s recommendation to postpone gatherings of 50 or more people for at least the next eight weeks.  As of March 13, 2020, at least 90 colleges and universities had already canceled classes or gone to online education.

As a faculty member, you are likely asking, “what happens now?” You have spent your entire career teaching in a traditional face-to-face environment.  Suddenly your school expects you to teach online, likely without any training and probably minimal support.  This sudden and drastic change is likely to overwhelm campus IT departments. You will likely have to rely mostly on yourself and your fellow faculty members to figure it out.

However, let’s try and help with some suggestions and ideas. As a faculty member suddenly thrust into online education, the most important thing to remember is don’t panic.  Take a deep breath and start with something small. When we administer exams, we tell our students don’t get stuck on a single question. If you can’t answer a question, move on and come back to the hard one later. Take the same approach to online education. Don’t fixate on a single issue.  Put problems aside from that you can’t answer now and move on to something you can.

Let’s discuss mobile apps. A lot of faculty are talking about apps they can use to teach. However, keep in mind all your students might not be able to use a specific app.  While many apps have both an iOS (iPhone, iPad) and Android (Google, Samsung, etc.) version, some apps don’t.  If an app is only available for iOS and half your students use android Phones, you can’t use that app. Perhaps you want to use live video conferences for group discussions. Your students might not have reliable high-speed internet in their homes. An excellent way to start planning is to send your students a survey to find out what technology they have. Here’s a short example

As you all know, the coronavirus has forced the university to shift to online education for at least the next several weeks. So that we can determine the best technology to use in continuing your education remotely, we would like to collect some information about the technology you have available to you.

Thank You
Instructors Name


What mobile tech do you use?

What kind of operating system does your mobile tech use?

What type of computer do you have?
Don’t own a computer

What operating system does your computer use?

what type of network access do you have?

Once you know, the technology your students have access to, you can start thinking about apps and other mobile technologies.

Because the change to online education was sudden, you will likely be playing catch-up. While you are waiting for responses from your students, let’s move one to another step. Even if you have never taught online, you have likely used a powerful online educational tool, your school’s Learning Management System (LMS). Your students can access the LMS anywhere they have an internet connection. Many LMS’s even have apps that give access through mobile devices.

A good starting point is to transfer your quizzes and exams into your LMS. You could even use the LMS to send your technology survey to your students. If your class involves lots of discussion questions, as the next step, set up discussion boards around your questions. Online discussion boards are not exactly like an in-class discussion. If you use the discussion board in the LMS, you are probably going to want to give your students some guidelines. As an example

This week’s discussion will focus on:

To receive full credit for the discussion, everyone must post at least a two-paragraph answer to the discussion questions.

Then comment on three other discussion posts, and responds to at least two comments

Next, look at the assignments tool; faculty can use it for more than grading papers. Students should be able to upload all kinds of digital files (document, image, audio, or video) through the assignment tool. Use the assignments tool as a means of excepting any type of data that gives your students one location to submit files. It also helps you keep track of your student’s submissions. The ability to accept multiple file types is especially useful in a class that has a lot of auditory content like speech or music classes. If your students have a regular weekly performance, you can create an assignment for each week.  The students can record their performance and then upload the file to the assignments page.

Yes, I know everyone is asking, what about lectures? You can use video or audio recordings to present your lectures. Today most LMS systems will allow video uploads. However, you should ask your school IT department if your school has access to a streaming video service. Streaming services are like YouTube or Netflix; they use a unique technology to deliver videos. Delivery of videos over the internet is technically demanding, and bandwidth-heavy process streaming services have optimized technology. If your school has access to a streaming service, you should use it. If your school does not have access to a streaming service or video delivery through your LMS, there is always YouTube.

What’s is the easiest way to record a lecture.  You might not like to hear this, but PowerPoint is a quick and easy way to create narrated presentations, you can find basic instructions here or here. Once you have recorded your narration, you can save your presentation as a PowerPoint show, which will play even if your students don’t have PowerPoint.  Alternatively, your school might have a lecture capture system.

However, the strongest recommendation I can make about online videos is to keep them short. If you record a whole lecture, break it up, and post it in 5-10-minute pieces. Alternatively, just record 5-minute videos concerning the most important topics.

Finally, over the next weeks and months, share what you learn.  Let people know what worked for you and what didn’t.  Let people know why something did or did not work. The best way to get through this is to help each other.

Thanks for Listening to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

P.S. Let me know if there are specific technologies or distance education problems where a blog post might help.

Virtual Education

“There are as many applications for VR as you can think of, it’s restricted by your imagination.”
John Goddard

Virtual reality is an exciting technology.  For the last several years, there have been numerous articles talking about Virtual Reality (VR) the emerging technology. As a small example:

What makes virtual reality interesting is that for an emerging technology VR is quite old.  While the term virtual reality was coined in 1987 by John Lanier devices and the idea at the core of the technology can be traced back to 1935 (The Very Real History of Virtual Reality (+A Look Ahead).) Therefore, VR is more than 80 years old, though the first working example didn’t appear until 1957.

One of the first custom-built educational VR programs I encountered was the Boise State Universities Virtual Reality Nursing Simulation with Custom Haptic System for Patient Safety at the 2015 WCET (WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies) conference. This system was designed as a supplement or replacement to nurse training with expensive medical manikins.  Additional studies showed that students that used the VR system had comparable pass rates on practical skills tests compared to students that used the Manikins.

While we have seen a few of these educational VR programs developed over the last couple of years, A recent Chronical of Higher Education article, Virtual Reality Comes to the Classroom, presents a different approach (the article is also available here.)   Nhora Lucía Serrano added VR to her literature course at Hamilton College.  Professor Serrano’s students designed a virtual environment based on the novels they read.  The students used Unity and Tinkercad to build their virtual worlds.

Unity is a game engine which as Unity says, “A game engine is a software that provides game creators with the necessary set of features to build games quickly and efficiently.”  Unity also has a personal version that is free if you make less then 100K a year on your Unity projects.  Tinkercad is a free 3D modeling program. These two tools give students or faculty the ability to create and modify 3D objects and then build a VR environment.

Professor Serrano’s use of VR in the classroom reminds me of video essays.  While most people are probably familiar with the video essay, the idea behind a video essay is to take the analytical structure of an essay and build a video instead of a written essay.  It is probably only a matter of time before we see someone try and create a VR essay.  However, we do need to be careful that we don’t run to VR simply because we are attracted to the shiny new thing.

As the Chronical article says, “But what is the pedagogical value of a virtual or enhanced experience? Just because students may like it, does that mean they will learn more than they would through a simple computer program or a textbook and lecture?” Pedagogy is essential we need to use technology to solve problems.  However, the question “does that mean they will learn more than they would through a simple computer program or a textbook and lecture?” is not really the correct question.

There is nothing wrong with using technology, even if the outcomes are the same as a “simple computer program or a textbook and lecture.”  If that new technology is more accessible more engaging easier to use or more cost-effective, then there is nothing wrong with using it.  Additionally, even if the outcomes are the same, there is value in using a tool that engages the students differently.  There is always something to be said about using different approaches to relieve the monotony and potentially engage a broader audience.

While professor Serrano’s VR project appears to have been engaging and quite successful, it is posable even likely that the learning gains were not from VR as much as they had another way to access and think about the material.  It is quite posable that the pedagogical advantage of VR won’t be strictly speaking derived from the virtual world.  It is more likely that the benefits of VR will be the ability to do things that would otherwise be imposable or prohibitively costly.

As an example, it would be impossible to visit all the locations discussed in a course on the history of western civilization.  Even if it were posable to travel to all the places in the time frame of a single semester, the cost would be prohibitive.  High fidelity VR recreations would give students the ability to see and explore these sites.  Additionally, it would be impossible for every student in an architectural class to build a multimillion-dollar building in real life.  However, in VR, not only could they build the building, other students and faculty could walk around explore their structure.  Another example in an astronomy class VR would make it possible for students to stand on the surface of the Sun or Mars.

While it is possible, we will develop a VR pedagogy.  It is also important to remember that sometimes, a tool is just a tool.  We don’t talk about the pedagogy of the hammer, yet it is an essential tool in building a set for a theater production or collecting a rock sample in geology.  Whether or not we develop “Pedagogy of VR” and whether it’s better than existing technologies, there is always a place for tools that let us do the otherwise imposable.

Thanks for Listing To my Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Technology and Cheating Two: The Rules

“The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.”
B. F. Skinner

In my last blog post, Does Technology Change What It Means to Cheat?, I discussed the question of whether modern technology fundamentally changed what it meant to cheat.  The article was about an online anthropology course and the instant messaging app GroupMe.  I concluded that the problem was not with technology changing what it meant to cheat but misuse and incomplete rules concerning the technology.  The situation discussed in the GroupMe “scandal” is also representative of the reason why a lot of schools only want their faculty and students to use approved applications.

So, if technology has not changed cheating, then what went wrong in this case?  How did 70+ students end up in trouble when only two students directly cheated?  The Chronical article says:

“More broadly, the scandal highlights the difficult issue of expanding technology in the classroom, students in the Google generation who view the free exchange of information without citation as not problematic, and faculty members who are wary of the use — and perceived abuse — of new digital tools.”

Now let’s be clear. I think this statement confuses issues in the article.  Nowhere in this GroupMe scandal would the addition of a citation fix the problem.  According to the professor, a student posted information about a test that is not allowed.  It would not have mattered if the student added a citation.  Also, we are talking about an online class, so it is doubtful that the professor is wary of technology.  Additionally, research is the core of the academy. These researchers want their discoveries disseminated.

The research community has been at the forefront of the movement to make research articles free to the public.  Also, the Google generation uses citations; writers of Wikipedia articles use citations.  The problem is whether students are using valid sources.  Modern technology gives everyone the ability to create content.  Some of that web 2.0 content is incomplete or invalid.  Contrary to how it is often presented, it has always been necessary to teach students that they need to cite their references.  Modern technology means we need to teach students not only to cite but validate their references.

So, if it is not a change in what it means to cheat, and it is not a conflict of generational beliefs then what was the problem?  It could be that the students did not think the question was cheating.  However, I think the problem is more fundamental than that.  The course rule the professor accused the students of violating is, “Students are not permitted to ask about, discuss, or share information related to exams and labs.”  The question that caused the violation is “a student had posted in the GroupMe asking what might be on the test.”

Another student responded with a list of all the textbook concepts the class had reviewed up to the exam, she said.”  Now let’s be clear faculty have the right to establish and enforce rules based on their judgment.  However, in this case, I think the instructor might be better suited to a rule that is not quite so broad.  Suppose the student had asked a different question “What topics have we covered in the course so far?” The answer would be the same list.  I would not find anything wrong with that question, and I suspect that question would not have led to charges of cheating.

If we accept that there is nothing wrong with the second question, even though it produces the same response, then the only reason for a cheating charge is because the question contained the word “test.” In this case, I think the professor needs a rule or set of rules that are not quite as broad.

While the rule might be too broad, did all the students violate the rule?  In the previous article, I discussed how it was not clear that all 70+ students saw the post.  However, the students are not able to prove they did not see the information.  Additionally, did the professor tell the students what to do if they encountered a violation?  Did the students ask what to do if they encountered a violation?  Technology makes it faster and easier to disseminate information; both faculty and students need to think about protecting themselves. 

Why should students protect themselves and why should faculty provide instructions on what to do if their students encounter a violation.  Let’s look at a potential scenario, I’m a student taking the same anthropology class, and I have signed up to the course GroupMe.  I have a terrible time in the course and become disgruntled.  I create an alternative account on GroupMe and ask the questions, “Does anyone know what is going to be covered on the next exam?” Then using my primary GroupMe account, I post, “Here are the answers for the next exam.” along with a list of the answers.  Now I have not explicitly said it in the post, but the reason for these posts is to sabotage the course.

Would it be fair to fail all the students in the GroupMe?  Of course, not, but how do we determine if something like that is what happened?  It could be hard to prove.  So instead of trying to figure out what is going on after the fact, we need rules and instruction ahead of the time.  As a faculty member, you need to not only have rules concerning what students can’t do but what the students should do if they encounter a problem.

As for technology, schools need tools that work for their needs.  Apps like GroupMe get used because they meet the requirement of students.  However, GroupMe has no way for a moderator to delete a post from all the accounts.  There is also no way to flag posts as inappropriate. 

Technology has changed our life in a lot of fundamental ways.  However, the fact that faculty member’s rules don’t fully account for a situation doesn’t mean we need to change what it means to cheat.  As I have said before, schools need to be proactive in the review and development of technologies for use in education.  Beyond that, it is more important than ever for schools to provide resources and training for faculty and students. 

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Does Technology Change What It Means to Cheat?

“The first and worst of all frauds is to cheat oneself.”
Gamaliel Bailey

I came across an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education A Professor Wants to Fail Students for Sharing Information in an Online Chat. But Has Tech Changed What Qualifies as Cheating?  The article’s title proposes a question about what effect technology has on the meaning of cheating in education.  I’ve previously written about how technology makes it easier for students to commit plagiarism and gives faculty better tools to catch plagiarism (Technology and Plagiarism.) I didn’t address the issue of whether technology changes plagiarism or cheating.

When we talk about technology and cheating, we generally talk about how technology makes it easier for students to cheat.  We talk about training faculty to use technology and tools to catch students that are cheating.  We rarely talk about whether technology changes cheating.  So, what does it mean to cheat?  Some things are apparent or should be, plagiarism, copying another student’s answers off a test, and submitting somebody else’s work as your own is cheating.

However, at a fundamental level, what does it mean to cheat?  Like many of the words in the English language, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, the word cheat has lots of definitions, specifically 12.  The definition that works best for education is “: to violate rules dishonestly.”

Using the definition from Webster cheating, therefore, is anything that the rules of the course say.  With these definitions in mind, we can ask the question, does the technology in the chronical article change what it means to cheat? 

The technology in question is the messaging app GroupMe.  The app allows students to send messages to small or large groups of individuals.  GroupMe appeals to students because it is free, and it enables students to communicate without sharing personal information.  The students in question were in an online anthropology course at the University of Texas at Austin.  The professor, John Kappelman, Ph.D., has a course rule “Students are not permitted to ask about, discuss, or share information related to exams and labs.”

One of the students in the anthropology course shared exam information in the GroupMe.  In response, the professor recommended that the dean fail the 70+ students using the GroupMe app for his class.  At the time of this writing, the 70+ cases are still under review, and because of ethical rules, we may never learn the outcome of most of the cases.  However, most schools would agree that a faculty member has the authority to set rules, expectations, and consequences in their course.

If we accept the fact that faculty have the right to set their own rules and expectations, then the student posting exam information has violated the rules and therefore cheated.  What about the other 70+ students using the GroupMe app do they also deserve to be failed?  Did all 70+ students in the GroupMe app cheat? Let’s leave aside the question of whether a failing grade is a correct punishment, something I suspect would generate debate and ask did the other students cheat?

The chronical article is a little short on the facts. However, a report from the Huston Chronical, 70 University of Texas students face discipline for group message about exam offers a little more information.

“Around the time of the Anthropology course’s second exam earlier this month, she said a student had posted in the GroupMe asking what might be on the test. Another student responded with a list of all the textbook concepts the class had reviewed up to the exam, she said. A few hours later, she received Kappelman’s email [this was the email were Kappelman said he was recommending that the dean fail all the students].”

With the information from the Huston Chronical, we can now put the students into three groups. Group One is the student that requested proscribed information.  Group Two is the student that provided the proscribed information.  Group Three is all the other the students in the GroupMe. Again, leaving aside any debate as to whether this question should be considered cheating, following professor Kappelman’s rules, the students in Group One and Two have cheated.

What about Group Three? The other 70+ users from the class that saw the list of topics.  Let’s propose a theoretical alternative.  Suppose the professor did not have access to GroupMe, and instead of posting a list of topics covered, the student posted the answer key to the exam.  If other students read this information and then took the exam, a reasonable person would say they cheated.

However, let’s suppose that instead of being a real-time app, the student had to log-in each time to see their messages.  Suppose the student posted the exam answer key.  What if a student never logged-on to the app in between the time the student posted the answers and the time of the test?  Again, I think it is clear they didn’t cheat; they never saw the answers.

Let’s also think about a third situation.  Again, using the situation in which a student posted the exam key.  Suppose a student logged into the app and saw the exam key.  Instead of taking the exam, the student immediately contacts the professor and explains to them what happened.  One could technically say by reading the message, the student participated in a rule-breaking conversation.  However, they were not dishonest about it, and they did not seek to gain from the illicit knowledge they gained, so no, they didn’t cheat.

So, the real problem here is that most of the students, Dr. Kappelman, is punishing nether requested or posted rule braking material. Additionally, we don’t know what the students would have done or even how many saw the message.  It is also not clear if there is even a way to determine who saw and who did not see the information.

However, does the fact that it is not clear whether 70+ students cheated mean that technology has changed what cheating is?  I don’t think so; this entire situation could have happened without the GroupMe app.  Suppose instead of the instant message app, students used an old-fashioned telephone and answering machine or even paper letters mailed to each other.  One could also imagine a situation in which students posed notes on a contact board at a local coffee shop.

Suppose there is a coffee shop that all the anthropology students use.  A student posts a note on the contact board at that coffee shop saying, “Does anyone know anything about the exam coming up?” Another student posts the answer key on the contact board.  If a student comes in and reads the answer key and then goes and takes the exam, they would be cheating.  If a student comes in the coffee shop and never looks at the contact board and, therefore, never sees the answer key when they take the test, they would not be cheating.  Additionally, if a student reads, the contact board sees the answer key and then goes and tells the professor they are also not cheating.   Just like in the GroupMe case, the hard part would be finding a way for the students to prove whether they had seen the information on the contact board.

If you spend some time and think about it, you will see that modern technology rarely creates new situations.  Modern technology makes things easier and faster than previously posable.  Therefore we are not facing a situation in which students are cheating in fundamentally new ways. It is simpler, faster, and easier for them to cheat.  The problem at the core of the GroupMe scandal is the misuse of technology and incomplete rules, not changes to cheating.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

But I Can’t Use Images in PowerPoint!

“If you can’t write your message in a sentence, you can’t say it in an hour.”
Dianna Booher

A few weeks ago I wrote about PowerPoint (Blame the Tools, It’s Easier).  In addition to the idea that PowerPoint “forces” the use of bulleted lists the most common complaint I hear is about images.  The use of images in PowerPoint is such a common problem that I have hosted and given workshops on the topic.

When it comes to the use of images in PowerPoint, the critical thing to remember is to maximize the use of space. Unfortunately, this is not always as easy as it might seem.  If we assume you are making slides for a presentation, then the available space is determined by the projector, not your computer.  Two factors determine the available space of your projector the resolution and aspect ratio.

Resolution is the number of pixels on the screen, while the aspect ratio is the shape of the screen.  Fortunately, if your computer has enough processing power to handle your slides (most modern computers do) you only really need to worry about aspect ratio. Your computer will still run your presentation even if your image is too big.  If you use the zoom function, magnifying glass on the presenter’s screen or the plus and minus keys, there is even an advantage to using oversize pictures.

With regards to the aspect ratio, most projectors and computer screens have a 16:9 aspect ratio.  The 4:3 aspect ratio went out of production for computers sometime around 2012.  However, you still might encounter some 4:3 projectors. As a reference today (2019) most Windows-based laptops use the 16:9 aspect ratio while MacBook’s use 16:10.

The first thing to do when designing a presentation is to find out the aspect ratio of the projector you will be using.  When researching projectors, you will most likely find the resolution/aspect ratio listed like VGA, XGA, and Full HD. These letters are the abbreviation of a monitor standard.  Each standard represents a resolution and aspect ratio.  VGA stands for Video Graphics Array and has a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels and an aspect ratio of 4:3. Some common monitor standards you could encounter are

  • XGA        1024 x 768          4:3
  • 720p      1280 x 720          16:9
  • WXGA    1280 x 720          16:9
  • WXGA    1280 x 800          16:10
  • 1080p    1920 x 1080        16:9

If you encounter other resolution, you can look them up on Wikipedia’s Display resolution page. Alternatively, if all you have is the resolution say 1600 x 1200, you can use an online aspect ratio calculator, 1600 x 1200 (UXGA) has a 4:3 aspect ratio.  When you know the aspect ratio of the projector, you can design the slides to fill the screen.  Below are four images that show a 16:9 slide on a 4:3 screen and a 4:3 slide on a 4:3 screen than a 4:3 slide on a 16:9 screen and 16:9 slide on a 16:9 screen.

4 slides that show 4:3 content on 4:3 and 16:9 slides and 16:9 content on 4:3 and 16:9 slides
4 slides that show 4:3 content on 4:3 and 16:9 slides and 16:9 content on 4:3 and 16:9 slides

The first thing is to create a presentation that matches your projector.  The current default aspect ratio for a PowerPoint presentation is 16:9. PowerPoint users can change the ratio to 4:3; click on Design in the top menu then on the right side of the design bar click slide size and choose 4:3.  If you happen to have the 16:10 resolution you will need to click Custom instead of 4:3 then from the Slide Sized dropdown menu choose On Screen Show (16:10).  Now that we have our slides setup, we can add images.  Under the new slides button, there are six options, several of them will accept images. However, as I said when I talked about the font, making a good presentation is all about defeating the presets and built-in options.

Below are Six options (A-F) that PowerPoint “suggested.”  Unless you are teaching a class on design, I am going to assume that the critical content is the image.  In this case, the best “default” option is F However; the title box covers up a portion of the image, our primary content.

a slide showing 6 default option for image layout in PowerPoint. On Slide F the image completely fills the screen and a white text box displays the title at the bottom.
a slide showing 6 default option for image layout in PowerPoint. On Slide F the image completely fills the screen and a white text box displays the title at the bottom.

Instead of a default option, I start with a blank slide and insert an image.  If you select the image and then click and hold shift + ctrl (shift + ⌘ mac) and the image will resize from the center evenly along all edges.  That will give you the slide below a single picture filling the slide.

A slide filed with an image of the Carlsbad Cavern Big room and no text.
A slide filed with an image of the Carlsbad Cavern Big room and no text.

Now we need to add a title the option that leaves the image completely clear is to have the title on the previous slide like the following images.

A title slide saying Carlsbad Cavers The Big Room.
A title slide saying Carlsbad Cavers The Big Room.
A slide filed with an image of the Carlsbad Cavern Big room and no text.
A slide filed with an image of the Carlsbad Cavern Big room and no text.

If you need the title on the image, there are two ways to do it.  The first is to insert a text box and find a color that the audience can read on top of the image.  Finding a readable text color can be difficult if the image has a lot of different colors and a broad contrast range.  When you have found a color that works enter your title. The following image uses white text. 

A slide filed with an image of the Carlsbad Cavern Big room and white title text.
A slide filed with an image of the Carlsbad Cavern Big room and white title text.

The second and my preferred method of adding text to an image is to insert a text box fill it with a 60 -70% transparent white and then use black text.  An example of the translucent text box with black text is below.

A slide filed with an image of the Carlsbad Cavern Big room. With a text box filled with translucent white and black text.
A slide filed with an image of the Carlsbad Cavern Big room. With a text box filled with translucent white and black text.

The reason I prefer the translucent white text box, it always works, and you can still see the picture.  The translucent white generates contrast for the black text on any combination of colors.  Because it always works, I can do it in the same way on every slide.  When designing slides for a teaching presentation, consistency is essential; your audience will note and be distracted by changes.   The only reason you should break consistency is to make a point.  However, remember if you break consistency to make a point only do it once or at most twice if your presentation has discrete sections. 

Again, this post only covers a single piece of one topic.  The selection of color and color palette that works with an image could be another topic all by itself.  The idea of consistency could and probably should be expanded to cover all the slides used in a year-long course, not just one presentation.  Hopefully, this discussion on images in PowerPoints is helpful.  I’m not sure I have gotten PowerPoint out of my system; I may come back to this topic again.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Technology and Plagiarism

“All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Technology and computers have become central components of modern life.  Using word processors has become such a common practice that if asked, most people know what Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V mean.   On the positive side, technology has made writing and research faster. Modern word processors make writing and editing more quickly than typewriters or handwriting.  Modern computers make changing words, correcting spelling, and moving large blocks of text easy and fast.

The internet makes information available in ways that historically would have been unbelievable.  Libraries, museums, and research journals are accessible all over the world through the internet.  The internet allows access to news in real time from all around the world. The internet has become such an essential source of information that there are individuals that say it is necessary for education.

Like most things with benefits come drawbacks.  One of the most significant disadvantages of technology on writing is how easy it is to plagiarize.  It is just as easy to grab text from someone else’s document as it is to move text around your document. Fortunately, like many things’ technology evolves along two fronts. People start reading your documents we developed encryption. Hackers create viruses, spyware, and trojans companies develop anti-virus software.

To counteract the increasing ease of plagiarism tools have been developed to identify it. Many schools are integrating Plagiarism checkers directly into their Learning Management Systems (LMS).  Additionally, using the schools LMS to accept assignment digitally allows for automatic plagiarism detection. In addition to commercial tools today, there are also free tools. The availability of free tools means even if your school does not have a plagiarism checker, you can still make use of one to test your students’ assignments.  However, what does it mean to “check” the material?

Several years ago, the school I was working at had a contract with  When faculty sent an assignment to, the program generated a similarity report. uses a 0-100% scale where the percentage is the amount of the paper that is similar to other sources. Faculty would always ask what number means plagiarism. The faculty wanted an exact number, at X% the student committed plagiarism.

Unfortunately, it is not always that clear. Technically a single sentence can be plagiarism.  The previous sentence is seven words long 0.6% of this document, and if I had stolen that sentence, it would be plagiarism.  The definition of Plagiarizing “: to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own: use (another’s production) without crediting the source” (Merriam-Webster) does not include a word length.  If a writer takes another person’s text and attempts to pass it off as their own, no matter how short or long, it is plagiarism.

However, using the rule that any similarity score is plagiarism can also cause problems.  Most plagiarism checkers will recognize quotes and references.  Beyond that, maybe the writer forgot to add a reference or quotation marks.  Alternatively, there is a limit to how many ways a writer can write something.  Suppose a student is writing a review of a Sherlock Holmes book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  How many ways are there to write a sentence stating where Sherlock lives?

  • Sherlock Holmes lives at 221b Baker Street.
  • Sherlock Holmes lived at 221b Baker Street, London, England.
  • Sherlock Holmes lived in apartment b at 221 Baker street.
  • Sherlock Holmes lived in apartment b at 221 Baker Street, London, England.
  • Sherlock Holmes made his residence at 221b Baker Street.
  • Sherlock Holmes made his residence at 221b Baker Street, London, England.
  • The story began at the residence of Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street.
  • The story began at the residence of Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street, London, England.
  • Sherlock Holmes shared an apartment with Dr. Watson at 221b Baker Street.
  • Sherlock Holmes shared an apartment with Dr. Watson at 221b Baker Street, London, England.

I can quickly come up with ten sentences; I am sure I could come up with more without a lot of work.  I would also be utterly shocked if someone has not written these sentences before.  A Google search using the sentence “Sherlock Holmes lived at 221b Baker Street, London England.” produced 324,000 hits.  The sentence “Sherlock Holmes made his residence at 221b Baker Street.” Produced 443,000 hits. Does this mean I plagiarized them?  Well, I didn’t look them up, I didn’t copy and paste them, I created them from my memory of Sherlock Holmes address. I would say no, this is not plagiarism others might say yes, it is plagiarism.

Perhaps this is a situation in which a direct quote would be better.  With very little research I found that 221b Baker Street first appears in the book A Study in Scarlet,

“We met next day as he had arranged, and inspected the rooms at No. 221B, Baker Street, of which he had spoken at our meeting.  They consisted of a couple of comfortable bed-rooms and a single large airy sitting-room, cheerfully furnished, and illuminated by two broad windows.  So desirable in every way were the apartments, and so moderate did the terms seem when divided between us, that the bargain was concluded upon the spot, and we at once entered into possession.”

The truth of the matter is that just about any plagiarism score below 100% (maybe 90%) you are probably going to have to review yourself.  However, I have found that the schools and faculty that use plagiarism checks the best don’t only use the tools to watch for plagiarism but also as a means of teaching.

Make the plagiarism tools available to your students let them self-check.  The plagiarism tools will help students identify simple mistakes like a forgotten reference or quote.  Additionally, if they find that sections of their text are showing a lot of similarities, perhaps it is time to find an actual quote or reference.  Plagiarism checkers can also enhance research skills, for instance, is that paper, book, or website the primary source for a quote. If your source is not the primary source, what is the primary source? The student might even find that the secondary source misused or quoted the primary source.  Additionally, if the checker marks something on a student’s paper and they are confused by it, they can talk to their instructor generating a teachable moment.

It is easier than ever for students (or really anyone) to plagiarize someone else’s work.  Fortunately, tools that help us uncover plagiarism are also getting better and better.  However, we should remember that the best way to use these tools is not exclusively as punishment but also as teaching tools.  We can use these plagiarism checkers to reinforce research and using references, quotes, and citations.  Remember any tool that can be used to check, and grade can also be used to teach.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Blame the Tools, It’s Easier

“PowerPoint is the Rodney Dangerfield of software. It gets no respect.”
Ken Goldberg

Universities should ban PowerPoint. It makes students stupid and professors boring.” That is the title of an article from the Business Insider that recently came up in my LinkedIn feed.  While I generally agree with the author’s statement that schools usually measure student satisfaction instead of student learning.  I do take exception to the idea that PowerPoint is the root of all evil.  The core of the author’s argument seems to be that lectures are generally not effective learning tools.  Again, I generally agree with the idea that lectures are not effective.  However, the author seems to blame PowerPoint for the persistence of lectures in education.

To quote the author, “Overreliance on slides has contributed to the absurd belief that expecting and requiring students to read books, attend classes, take notes, and do homework is unreasonable.”  I, however, find this statement a little strange.  For starters in almost all college-level courses, students don’t read in class.  Students are expected to do their reading, textbook, novel, manuscript, and articles, either as preparation for class or review after class.  How does the use of PowerPoint in class effect students reading out of class? 

While I expect students being bored with poor lecturers could lead to decreases in attendance.  I suspect attendance has more to do with faculty policy then the technology used in the classroom.  In many undergraduate course’s faculty say it is up to the students to determine if they are going to attend or not.  They often call it “treating them like adults.”  If you think attendance is essential, require it, and then make the class time worthwhile, don’t blame random tech.

Homework, just like reading, is done outside of class.  Of all the complaints, the only one that might be valid is note taking. After all, how the instructor presents the material will affect the student’s ability to take notes.  However, is this the fault of the program or the failure of the presenter.

 Whenever people start blaming educational problems exclusively on technology, I remember a quote I heard years ago. “The students got distracted by Facebook, so we took away the Internet. The students got distracted playing Solitaire, so we took away their computers, the students got distracted doodling, so we took away their pencils.”  -Anonymous. This quote always reminds me of how easy it is to blame other things when the individual ultimately responsible for the classroom is the teacher.

So is the presentation tool PowerPoint responsible for poor classroom engagement and bad lectures or is the real problem that individuals don’t learn how to use PowerPoint.  Let’s start with the basics, suppose I’m teaching An Introduction to Circuits course. First, we need to create a new slide presentation, and PowerPoint gives us lots of choices.  Never use just a plain white background. With a white background; you can get chromatic aberration; the projector produces rainbows on the screen.  The critical thing to remember is, I don’t want anything showing up on my slides that I don’t put there.

Look at the three slides below they are all available in PowerPoint which slide do you think would be the best.

Three PowerPoint Title slides with Title An Introduction to Circuits and subtitle CH1-Voltage. Slide A has a pretty but busy background and white text in a black box. Slide B has a light blue background with a dark gradient toward the bottom right corner and a circuit pattern along the left edge. The text is white. Slide C has a light blue background with white text.
Three PowerPoint Title slides with Title An Introduction to Circuits and subtitle CH1-Voltage. Slide A has a pretty but busy background and white text in a black box. Slide B has a light blue background with a dark gradient toward the bottom right corner and a circuit pattern along the left edge. The text is white. Slide C has a light blue background with white text.

How many of you choose C as the best option?  Slide A is to use an old saying too busy.  The circuit drawings on the side of B might be a distraction.  The color gradient is not that bad an idea? We read slides from left to right and top to bottom a color gradient that uses the same pattern can help direct the eyes across the slide. However, you will have to keep this directionality in mind with everything you put on the slide. That leaves slide C, which is honestly not great.  Modern projectors are bright, light text on a light background is hard to read.  Creating an excellent presentation is all about fighting the defaults. So instead of light text use dark text, this gives us the slide below.

A PowerPoint title slide with a light blue background and black text
A PowerPoint title slide with a light blue background and black text

The next point concerning text is readability.  The most significant impact on readability is room size.  The larger the room, the bigger the text needs to be on the screen.  Dave Paradi wrote a great article on text size for presentations Selecting the correct font size.  Using Paradi’s work using a 10’ screen in a classroom where the furthest student is ~45’ away (100 student lecture hall) the smallest usable font size is 24 point.  In a 500-student lecture hall (most distant student ~150’ away) the smallest usable font is 44 point.  See the slides below.

Two PowerPoint title slides The two slide the first uses 24 Point text as the smallest and is for viewing form a maximum of 45 ft the second uses 44 point text as the smallest and is for viewing from a maximum of 150 ft.
Two PowerPoint title slides The two slide the first uses 24 Point text as the smallest and is for viewing form a maximum of 45 ft the second uses 44 point text as the smallest and is for viewing from a maximum of 150 ft.

That is a significant change in the appearance of the slides for a difference of about 100’.

Beyond text size and color, the most common complaint I hear is that PowerPoint forces you to use bullets.  However, you can change bullets. You can turn them off, or not use them.  Textboxes and other slide layouts mean you can place text anywhere you want.  Remember an excellent PowerPoint presentation requires you to fight the defaults.

Now let’s be honest while I believe most if not all the problems with PowerPoint presentation are because of a lack of training the solution is not easy.  After all, I only covered the basics of background and font size in a PowerPoint presentation.  There are also issues concerning images, slide layouts, and presentation lengths to discuss.  It is also possible to add questions to use with student response systems. Lastly, instructors can use PowerPoint presentations for active engagement. Maybe I should write a few more posts on this topic?

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg