Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Blogging in Moodle

Posted: Sep 04, 2014 16:09;
Last Modified: Sep 04, 2014 17:09

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In many of my classes, I ask students to blog within Moodle. Blogs within Moodle are visible to the whole community. It is also possible, using an RSS feed, to broadcast your blog outside Moodle.

There are two parts to using blogs in Moodle: composing blogs and reading the entries of others.

Contents

Composing a blog and associating it with a class

Ensuring your blog is associated with the class

There are two types of blog postings in Moodle: blogs that are associated with classes and those that are not. When you are being asked to blog for a specific class, it is important that you associate the blog with the relevant class. If you don’t, your instructor and classmates will have no way of seeing your blog unless they search your profile looking for it. In my classes, I don’t count blog entries that I have to go looking for.

Edited screenshot showing link to add blog entry in Moodle The best way of associating your blog with a class is to use the link found within the class space in Moodle. If blogging has been enabled by your class instructor, you should see a menu block somewhere on the page that looks something like the one illustrated here (in my classes this menu is usually in the top right corner).

On this menu, there are two links that take you to the blog composition interface: “Add an entry about this class” and “Add a new entry.” Of these, the one you should use is the top one, “Add an entry about this class” (highlighted in red in the above image). If you use this, a tag is added automatically to the blog, which groups it with the entries from the other students.

Using the blog interface.

You can write your blog in the provided interface or write it offline and paste it in the text box. I usually use the interface, but it is always possible if you do that that you will make a mistake or there will be a system error and you lose some or all of your work. For that reason it is smart in Moodle to save your work periodically.

The blog interface looks more or less like a wordprocessor. There are also options for working directly with the HTML code (useful for complicated pages, if you know what you are doing) or using various wiki-style markups (e.g. as in the Wikipedia, or using Markdown

Reading your classmates’ blogs

If you use the correct link, your blog will be associated with the class. This means that your fellow students (and I) can find it easily. You navigate to the class blogs using the same menu you used to associate your blog with class (i.e. as in the image above). This time choose “View all entries for this course.”

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Managing class webpages and mailing lists at the University of Lethbridge

Posted: Aug 26, 2014 11:08;
Last Modified: Sep 16, 2015 12:09

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For years, every class at the University of Lethbridge has been given webspace and a mailing list. The now also get a Moodle space. While the mailing list and Moodle space is well-known to instructors (it is the list “XXXXNNNNx@uleth.ca” that you use to make announcements to the class as a whole), the webspace is far less well known. This document (mostly a reminder to myself) shows you how you can use online tools to manage these resources.

Contents

If you do nothing

First thing is to realise what happens if you do nothing. A student you has found your course online through the registrar’s office and wants to know more about your section goes through the following depressing sequence:

Default Sequence of Class Websites

The thing to realise is that this is bad for everybody. It tells the student nothing, meaning they might decide not to take your course (and even if they do, poor websites leave a bad impression). But if they persist, it is going to mean more work for you: the only thing they can do to find out what they were looking for is back up one page, then following the links for the instructor until they find your email address and send you an email asking about something you could have easily posted online.

So it is a good idea to get in the habit of fixing this space… even (and perhaps especially if) you have a class webspace elsewhere on the internet. This is a first port of call for many students. You can easily make it a helpful one.

Login

To manage your classes, you first need to login to the classes.uleth.ca admin page: classes.uleth.ca/ClassAdmin

There you will see the following login page:

Class Administration Portal

A successful login will take you to a splash page which, apparently, shows you the current (or most recent) and upcoming semesters:

Class Administration Splash

It is from this page that you will manage your mailing lists and class webpages.

Managing your class webpage

First thing to do is manage your class webpage.

You have three options here:

  1. delegate it to somebody else on campus (a student, the department administrator, etc.)
  2. redirect it to some other URL (e.g. an off campus blog, your on-campus personal space (people.uleth.ca/~$USERNAME)
  3. default to the current page (in which case you will add something to the current space)

Class Administration Web Page Management

Upload pages to your default webspace

The most difficult if the third option. This will require you to upload individual HTML pages to the space for this one class—and do it again year after year. If you want to post a PDF there, then you have to upload at least two pages (and maintain them by hand): an HTML page explaining something about the site and containing a link to the PDF page, and the PDF. This is very 1995 and so not something you want to get started on.

You so don’t want to do this, that I’m not even going to say how. If you really want to, call 2490 and ask IT for help. But seriously, you don’t want to do this.

Delegate to somebody else

This is really easy: you simply enter the uleth.ca username of the person you want to maintain the site (i.e. the bit before the @ in a uleth.ca email address). When you click save, this person now can manage your site for you.

This is just punting the problem, of course: the big difference is that now you delegate has to decide whether to upload a single page (which they probably still shouldn’t do, even if that is no longer your problem) or redirect somewhere else.

Redirect to another webspace

This is probably the best option: point the class space to somewhere else where it is easier to manage things. This could be an external blog that you use to manage your teaching (e.g. at wordpress.com or some other blog site), your personal uleth webspace (i.e. at people.uleth.ca/~$USERNAME), or even your class Moodle or Turnitin site.

Mailing list management

You can also manage your mailing list from here. You can change the posting permissions and the membership.

Class Administration Mailing List Page

Posting permissions

Your options here are

  1. Anybody on the entire internet can post to your class mailing list
  2. Anybody who subscribes to your class mailing list (normally the instructor(s), T.A.s, and all registered students) can post to the list
  3. Only Instructors can post to the list

The first option is an invitation to spammers and should only be used under very special circumstances—so special in fact that I can’t think of any.

The second option is the default option and it works well for most.

The third option makes sense if you have trouble with students misbehaving on the list (e.g. sending spam or unauthorised messages) or if you want to deemphasise the list in favour of some other communication platform (e.g. the blog and forum capabilities in Moodle). If you select this, then the list becomes a one-way channel, useful for announcements for which you don’t want any feedback.

Subscription options

This is the important set of options. You can use this to add people to the default subscription list for your class (i.e. the teacher(s), T.A.(s), and registered students.

You have two options here:

  1. add additional teachers
  2. add additional students

The first option adds subscribers to the list who will have “teacher” privileges. This is only meaningful if you have set the posting privileges above to “teachers only.” Under those circumstances, any email addresses you add here still will be able to post. You might want to use this to add additional T.A.s (perhaps unofficial ones) or guest speakers to the list.

The second option is the one you are likely to use more often. This is where you can add additional, unregistered students (e.g. friends, members of the community, etc.).

If you keep the default permissions (i.e. that anybody subscribed to the list can post), then it actually doesn’t matter to which category you add people. The important thing is that you can add people to this important tool.

Adding TAs to Moodle

Another task you may need to do early on in the semester is adding TAs to Moodle. The instructions for doing that are here.

In short, however, the method is as follows:

  1. Go to the Moodle space for the class you want to add a TA to (i.e. log in to Moodle and select the class you want for your TA).
  2. Once you are inside the class, click on “Users” in the “Settings” block. On the University of Lethbridge’s default installation, this block is on the left hand side, bottom (in the default view) or second from the bottom (if editing is on).
  3. Clicking on “Users” expands the menu item. Under “Users” you will see “Enrolled Users.” Choose that.
  4. On the “Enrolled Users” dialogue screen, you will see a small button, “Enroll User” at the top of the form on the right hand side. Click that.
  5. In the dialogue that appears, select the type of user you are trying to enrol (in this case, that means Basic TA or Advanced TA) then using the search form, look for your TA’s name (they must be in the U of L’s system).
  6. After you click “search,” all users matching your search term will show up in the window. Find your TA and click on the “Enroll” button to the right of their name.
  7. Repeat the previous two steps for each TA you want to add.

When should you do this?

The best time to do this is just before the registration period opens for next semester. This is when students are going through the registrar site, looking for classes and the time when an appropriate redirect will have the maximum benefit.

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How to add a twitter feed to Moodle

Posted: Sep 12, 2012 15:09;
Last Modified: Sep 12, 2012 15:09

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Like many Digital Humanists, I use twitter a lot: for communicating with colleagues, the general public, and my students. Like most users of twitter (certainly most academics, I suspect), my most common type of tweet is probably one in which I share a resource I have come across—a book, article, website, project, etc. Since I use our university’s Moodle installation to store resources for my students, it would be quite useful to be able to capture a Twitter feed inside our Moodle class space. This post shows how to do it.

Although Twitter appears intent on destroying its main raison d’etre and selling point—the fact it is easy to use and embed in third party applications—it has not quite succeeded yet. Until recently, sharing a Twitter feed was quite easy, since your user page was itself a feed. In the last year or so, as Twitter has worked at making their service less useful, they have gradually removed all direct access to postings as an RSS or ATOM feed. They have attempted to replicate this functionality through a custom widget they have created. Since this widget appears to want to gather information about the page it is on, however, it appears unable to accept password-protected URLs such as universities typically use for their LMS installations (at any rate, it would not accept the U of L’s Moodle URL).

Although it is apparently not advertised, it still is possible to grab Twitter feeds as ATOM or RSS through the search.twitter.com URL. Using the URL. The URL and syntax for an RSS feed is http://search.twitter.com/search.rss?q= where q= is followed by an appropriate term (see below). For ATOM the URL and syntax is http://search.twitter.com/search.atom?q=

Here are some standard types of searchers you might want to do, from the excellent posting at The Sociable

Find tweets containing a word: http://search.twitter.com/search.atom?q=twitter
Find tweets from a user: http://search.twitter.com/search.atom?q=from%3Aalexiskold
Find tweets to a user: http://search.twitter.com/search.atom?q=to%3Atechcrunch
Find tweets referencing a user: http://search.twitter.com/search.atom?q=%40mashable
Find tweets containing a hashtag: http://search.twitter.com/search.atom?q=%23haiku
Combine any of the operators together: http://search.twitter.com/search.atom?q=movie+%3A%29

It is also possible to go far beyond this: The sociable also has ways of combining these with geographic locations and regions!

Getting this feed into Moodle is quite simple:

  1. While in your course, turn on editing
  2. Scroll down to the “Add a block” control
  3. Select “Remote RSS Feed”
  4. Fill in the necessary fields and click on “Add feed” to point at custom search you want to use.
  5. Save everything.

Eventually, you should see your feed show up in the Remote Feed box you added to your course (I say eventually, because the default refresh time in Moodle is 30 minutes).

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English 1900j (Fall 2012): Blogs

Posted: Sep 04, 2012 16:09;
Last Modified: Sep 04, 2012 17:09

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In this course you are expected to maintain a blog. Postings will be required from you most weeks. And every so often you are asked to review and/or comment on your blog postings and those of your class mates.

Contents

Why am I being asked to blog?

You are being asked to blog because experience shows that blogging is a good way of collecting your thoughts on a topic, keeping track of your intellectual development, discovering things you want to talk and write about, and building a community with your classmates. Blogs are helpful because they uncover trends in the interests and thoughts of the community, provide reference to interesting resources, and maintain a record of problems and solutions encountered throughout the year.

They are also useful because they encourage you to read with a computer nearby. One of the most important advantages of the internet age is the ease with which we can look things up. Blogging can be a way of intellectually profiting from and passing on things you have looked up during your reading.

What should I blog about?

What you write about in your blog is up to you. Sometimes, you may want to write about something you looked up about a book or author. Other times, you might want to discuss things you didn’t understand or difficult passages you think you can help others with. It might be about emotional responses you had to something we read; or a reflection on things discussed in class or in the hallway. Or a funny anecdote about something to do with the class. The only requirement is that most blog entries should be recognisably connected in some way to something in the current unit of our syllabus class (you’re allowed the occasional one that is not).

How am I being graded?

You are being graded on a pass-fail basis solely on whether you appear to have made a good faith effort to participate. In weeks where you write nothing or write blog entries that do not show what looks like a good faith effort to participate, you will receive a grade of 0%; blog entries that look like you made at least some good faith effort to participate in the discussion, will receive a grade of 100%.

Can I get bonus marks or redo a missed blog?

Blogs need to be done by the deadline to receive credit. Missed blogs cannot be made up. Everybody is allowed to miss one blog entry in the semester without penalty. This means, for example, that if there are eight blogs assigned in the course, you will receive 100% if you submit seven blogs on time. If you submit eight, you will receive extra credit for the extra blog.

What if I write more blogs than required?

If you right extra blogs in a given week, you will receive 1/2 bonus mark for every extra blog posting, up to a maximum of 1 extra bonus mark per week. Because these are for bonus marks, the standard by which your effort will be judged is a little higher: your entry must show real evidence of effort to receive a bonus mark.

What about comments?

You are not required to comment on blogs. If you do, this will be considered as evidence of participation.

Can I use material from my blog in my essay/unessay?

Yes. Your essay or unessays can reuse material from your blog.

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How to "clone" a test in Moodle 2.0

Posted: Mar 27, 2011 21:03;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

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Here’s how to clone a test in Moodle 2.0 (i.e. make an exact copy so that both appear in the course; this is useful for making practice tests or copying a basic test format so that it can be reused later in the course):

  1. Backup the test. Exclude all user data but include activities, blocks, and filters.
  2. Select “Restore.” Your backup should be listed under user private backups. Simply restore the file to create a second instance.
  3. Treat one of the instances as your clone: move it, edit it, change its titles and questions. It is a completely independent version of the original file.
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Organising Quizzes in Moodle 2.0

Posted: Mar 27, 2011 21:03;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

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Moodle 2.0 allows designers to divide questions into pages. But while this introduces great flexibility, it can be quite a cumbersome system to use at first. Here’s a method for making it more efficient:

  1. When you first build a test, put all questions on one page.
  2. Once you have the questions in the order you want, divide the test into different pages by selecting the last question for each page and selecting the “Begin new page after selected question.

This will cut down on your server calls (and hence time) immensely.

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Differences between Moodle and Blackboard/WebCT short answer questions

Posted: Mar 27, 2011 20:03;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

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There is an important difference between Moodle and Blackboard (WebCT) short answer questions that instructors should be aware of, namely that Moodle short answer questions allow only one answer field.

This means, for example, that you can’t easily import blackboard questions of the type “Supply the part of speech, person, tense, and number for the following form.” In Blackboard, you can present the student with four blanks for them to fill in, each with a different answer. When these are imported into Moodle, the question is converted into a form in which there is a single blank that has four possible correct answers.

There are various ways of asking the same kinds of questions in Moodle. The easiest when you are dealing with imported questions is to ask for a single quality in each answer. So instead of one question asking for part of speech, person, tense, and number, you might have four different questions, one for part of speech, another, for person, a third for tense, and a fourth for number.

A second way of asking this kind of question in Moodle is to use the embedded answer type. These are harder to write, but are arguably closer to the paper equivalent of the same type of question:

For the following Old English word supply the requested information:

clipode

Part of Speech: ____________
Tense: ____________
Number: ____________

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Multiple Choice Questions in Moodle

Posted: Mar 27, 2011 18:03;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

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Here are some tips for the composition of Multiple Choice Questions in Moodle.

  1. If students are allowed to mark more than one option correct and you intend to include at least one question where none of the offered options are correct, include as a possible answer “None of the listed options.”
    1. Do not call it “none of the above” since if (as you normally should) you have selected “shuffle answers,” you have no guarantee that it will be the final answer in the sequence.
    2. You should include this option in all questions in the set (including those for which some of the options are correct) to avoid giving the answer away when it appears.
    3. When “none of the listed options” is not the right answer, it should be scored at -100%, to avoid a student hedging his or her bets by selecting it and all the other answers.
  2. If you anticipate having a question for which all the answers are correct, you do not need a “All of the listed answers,” since selecting all will give students 100%.
  3. The correct options should be scored so they add up to 100%, of course!
  4. Incorrect options (exclusive of other than “None of the listed forms”) can be scored in a number of different ways:
    1. So that the total for all incorrect options (except “none of the listed forms”) is -100% (this stops a student hedging his or her bets by selecting all options); if you do not have a “none of the listed options” answer, you almost certainly should score this way.
    2. So that each negative is the reciprocal of a correct answer, regardless of whether all the incorrect answers add up to -100%. Use this if you don’t mind that a student selecting everything except a “None of the listed options” might end up with part marks.
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How to build a randomised essay/translation question in Moodle 2.0

Posted: Mar 20, 2011 16:03;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

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In my courses I often use a question of the following format:

  1. Common introduction
  2. Two or more sample passages or questions requiring an essay response
  3. A common form field for the answer to the student’s choice from #2.

Here is an example:

Write a modern English translation of one of the following passages in Old English in the space provided below.

1. Hæfst þū ǣnige ġefēran?
2. Hwæt māre dēst þū? Hæfst þū ġīet māre tō dōnne?

[Essay answer box for translation].

The point of this format is to provide the student with a choice of topics. If students all write their essays or translations at the same time, you can build your choice of topics by hand and write them into a single question. The challenge comes if you want to be able to allow your students to write the test asynchronously, as is common with Learning Management Software. In such cases you want to be able to draw your essay topics or translation passages randomly from a test bank.

All the basic elements you would need to do this are available in Moodle, both 1.x and 2.0+. You can use the “description” question type to put in the general instructions at the beginning; you can use the essay format question to provide the answer box. And you can use Moodle’s ability to assign random questions to draw your topics or translation passage from your test bank.

But there are also some problems:

  1. Description questions are unnumbered, meaning your introduction will not start with the question number
  2. Although there was some discussion before the release of Moodle 2.0 about allowing description questions to be randomised, this appears not to have been implemented. All questions that can be randomised must have an action associated with them. This means that every topic or translation passage must ask the student to do something. And also that each topic or translation will have a number.

What I do is the following:

  1. I write the introduction as a description question (and just accept that it has no number assigned).
  2. I write my translation passage or topics as “true / false” questions. Each consists of the topic or passage, followed by the question “I am writing on this topic/passage…” as the prompt for a true/false answer.
  3. I use the essay topic question to provide the common answer box. Since you need to have some text in an essay question, I use an anodyne instruction like “Write your essay/translation in the following space” to fill out the question.
  4. I assign a grade value of 0 to the two random topic/passages and assign the full grade value of the question to the essay answer box. The result is not elegant, but it works.
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Manual Grading of All Questions in Moodle 2.0

Posted: Mar 20, 2011 11:03;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03

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  1. From the main course page, select the quiz.
  2. From the quiz page, scroll down until you see the number of attempts made this should be a hyperlink.
  3. Select the hyperlink; you will now see a table of results. In the navigation block in the left hand frame select My home > My courses > [course name] > [Week or topic in which quiz is found] > Results > Manual Grading
  4. When you select this you are presented with the questions for manual grading. New in Moodle 2.0 is the option of hiding names and pictures; unfortunately this doesn’t affect the actual presentation of names under the “mark all instances” page.
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How to setup a signup sheet in Moodle

Posted: Mar 15, 2011 14:03;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

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You can create a signup sheet for Moodle using the “Choice” activity.

A video showing how to do this can be found here: https://ctl.furman.edu/main/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=78&Itemid=90

In brief, however, here’s how to do it:

  1. Go to the section of your course in which you want the signup sheet to appear.
  2. With editing on, select the “Choice” activity.
  3. Fill in the title and description information.
  4. If you are restricting attendance, set the “Limit the number of responses allowed” option under “Limit” to “enabled.” Setting this allowed you to set how many people are allowed to choice any one option. If it is disabled, any number of participants may sign up for any particular session.
  5. Each “Option” represents an entry on the signup sheet. Write in the date and time (or anything else you require) in the “Option” field and, if you have enabled limits, the maximum number of participants for the entry in the “limit” field. If you need more than the standard five options, select “Add three more options” after you’ve filled in the first five.
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How to do stuff in Moodle

Posted: Mar 15, 2011 12:03;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03

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Here’s a very good site at Furman University for common, specific tasks in Moodle: https://ctl.furman.edu/main/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogcategory&id=84&Itemid=90

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Byte me: Technological Education and the Humanities

Posted: Dec 20, 2008 14:12;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

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Note: Published in "_Heroic Age_ 12":http://www.heroicage.org/issues/12/em.php

I recently had a discussion with the head of a humanities organisation who wanted to move a website. The website was written using Coldfusion, a proprietary suite of server-based software that is used by developers for writing and publishing interactive web sites (Adobe nd). After some discussion of the pros and cons of moving the site, we turned to the question of the software.

Head of Humanities Organisation: We'd also like to change the software.
Me: I'm not sure that is wise unless you really have to: it will mean hiring somebody to port everything and you are likely to introduce new problems.
Head of Humanities Organisation: But I don't have Coldfusion on my computer.
Me: Coldfusion is software that runs on a server. You don't need it on your computer. You just need it on the server. Your techies handle that.
Head of Humanities Organisation: Yes, but I use a Mac.

I might be exaggerating here—I can't remember if the person really said they used a Mac. But the underlying confusion we faced in the conversation was very real: the person I was talking to did not seem at all to understand the distinction between a personal computer and a network server— basic technology by which web pages are published and read.

This is not an isolated problem. In the last few years, I have been involved with a humanities organisation that distributes e-mail by cc:-list to its thirty-odd participants because some members believe their email system can't access listervers. I have had discussions with a scholar working on a very time-consuming web-based research project who was intent on inventing a custom method for indicating accents because they thought Unicode was too esoteric. I have helped another scholar who wrote an entire edition in a proprietary word-processor format and needed to recover the significance of the various coloured fonts and type faces he had used. And I have attended presentations by more than one project that intended to do all their development and archiving in layout-oriented HTML.

These examples all involve basic technological misunderstandings by people actively interested in pursuing digital projects of one kind or another. When you move outside this relatively small subgroup of humanities scholars, the level of technological awareness gets correspondingly lower. We all have colleagues who do not understand the difference between a blog and a mailing list, who don't know how web-pages are composed or published, who can't insert foreign characters into a word-processor document, and who are unable to backup or take other basic precautions concerning the security of their data.

Until very recently, this technological illiteracy has been excusable: humanities researchers and students, quite properly, concerned themselves primarily with their disciplinary work. The early Humanities Computing experts were working on topics, such as statistical analysis, the production of concordances, and building the back-ends for dictionaries, that were of no real interest to those who intended simply to access the final results of this work. Even after the personal computer replaced the typewriter, there was no real need for humanities scholars to understand technical details beyond such basics as turning a computer on and off and starting up their word-processor. The principal format for exchange and storage of scholarly information remained paper and the few areas where paper was superseded—such as in the use of email to replace the memo—the technology involved was so widely used, so robust, and above all so useful and so well supported that there was no need to learn anything about it: if your email and word-processor weren't set up at the store when you bought a computer, you could expect this work to be done for you by the technicians at your place of employment or over the phone by the Help Desk at your Internet Service Provider: nothing about humanities scholars' use of the technology required special treatment or distinguished them from the University President, a lawyer in a one-person law office... or their grandparents.

In the last half-decade, this situation has changed dramatically. The principal exchange format for humanities research is no longer paper but the digital byte—albeit admittedly as represented in PDF and word-processor formats (which are intended ultimately for printing or uses similar to that for which we print documents). State agencies are beginning to require open digital access to publicly-funded research. At humanities conferences, an increasing number of sessions focus on digital project reports and the application. And as Peter Robinson has recently argued, it is rare to discover a new major humanities project that does not include a significant digital component as part of its plans (Robinson 2005). Indeed some of the most interesting and exciting work in many fields is taking advantage of technology such as GPS, digital imaging, gaming, social networking, and multimedia digital libraries that was unheard of or still very experimental less than a decade ago.

That humanists are heavily engaged with technology should come, of course, as no real surprise. Humanities computing as a discipline can trace its origins back to the relatively early days of the computer, and a surprising number of the developments that led to the revolution in digital communication over the last decade were led by people with backgrounds in humanities research. The XML specification (XML is the computer language that underlies all sophisticated web-based applications, from your bank statement to Facebook) was edited under the supervision of C. Michael Sperberg-McQueen, who has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Stanford and was a lead editor of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) Guidelines, the long-standing standard for textual markup in the humanities, before he moved to the W3C (Sperberg-McQueen 2007). Michael Everson, the current registrar and a co-author of the Unicode standard for the representation of characters for use with computers, has an M.A. from UCLA in Indo-European linguistics and was a Fulbright Scholar in Irish at the University of Dublin (Evertype 2003-2006). David Megginson, who has also led committees at the W3C and was the principal developer of SAX, a very widely used processor for XML, has a PhD in Old English from the University of Toronto and was employed at the Dictionary of Old English and the University of Ottawa before moving to the private sector (Wikipedia Contributors 2008).

Just as importantly, the second generation of interactive web technology (the so-called "Web 2.0") is causing the general public to engage with exactly the type of questions we research. The Wikipedia has turned the writing of dusty old encyclopedias into a hobby much like ham-radio. The social networking site Second Life has seen the construction of virtual representations of museums, and libraries. Placing images of a manuscript library or museum's holding on the web is a sure way of increasing in-person traffic at the institution. The newest field for the study of such phenomenon, Information Studies, is also one of the oldest: almost without exception, departments of Information Studies are housed in and are extensions of traditional Library science programmes.

The result of this technological revolution is that very few active humanists can now truthfully say that they have absolutely no reason to understand the technology underlying their work. Whether we are board members of an academic society, working on a research project that is considering the pros and cons of on-line publication, instructors who need to publish lecture notes to the web, researchers who are searching JSTOR for secondary literature in our discipline, or the head of a humanities organisation that wants to move its web-site, we are all increasingly involved in circumstances that require us to make basic technological decisions. Is this software better than that? What are the long-term archival implications for storing digital information in format x vs. format y? Will users be able to make appropriate use of our digitally-published data? How do we ensure the quality of crowd-sourced contributions? Are we sure that the technology we are using will not become obsolete in an unacceptably short period of time? Will on-line publication destroy our journal's subscriber base?

The problem is that these are not always questions that we can "leave to the techies." It is true that many universities have excellent technical support and that there are many high-quality private contractors available who can help with basic technological implementation. And while the computer skills of our students is often over-rated, it is possible to train them to carry out many day-to-day technological tasks. But such assistance is only as good as the scholar who requests it. If the scholar who hires a student or asks for advice from their university's technical services does not know in broad terms what they want or what the minimum technological standards of their discipline are, they are likely to receive advice and help that is at best substandard and perhaps even counter-productive. Humanities researchers work on a time-scale and with archival standards far beyond those of the average client needing assistance with the average web-site or multimedia presentation. We all know of important print research in our disciplines that is still cited decades after the date of original publication. Not a few scholarly debates in the historical sciences have hinged on questions of whether a presentation of material adequately represents the "original" medium, function, or intention. Unless he or she has special training, a technician asked by a scholar to "build a website" for an editorial project may very well not understand the extent to which such questions require the use of different approaches to the composition, storage, and publication of data than those required to design and publish the athletic department's fall football schedule.

Even if your technical assistant is able to come up with a responsible solution for your request without direction from somebody who knows the current standards for Digital Humanities research in your discipline, the problem remains that such advice almost certainly would be reactive: the technician would be responding to your (perhaps naive) request for assistance, not thinking of new disciplinary questions that you might be able to ask if you knew more about the existing options. Might you be able to ask different questions by employing new or novel technology like GPS, serious gaming, or social networking? Can technology help you (or your users) see your results in a different way? Are there ways that your project could be integrated with other projects looking at similar types of material or using different technologies. Would your work benefit from distribution in some of the new publication styles like blogs or wikis? These are questions that require a strong grounding in the original humanistic discipline and a more-than-passing knowledge of current technology and digital genres. Many of us have students who know more than than we do about on-line search engines; while we might hire such students to assist us in the compilation of our bibliographies, we would not let them set our research agendas or determine the contours of project we hire them to work on. Handing technological design of a major humanities research project over to a non-specialist university IT department or a student whose only claim to expertise is that they are better than you at instant messaging is no more responsible.

Fortunately, our home humanistic disciplines have had to deal with this kind of problem before. Many graduate, and even some undergraduate, departments require students to take courses in research methods, bibliography, or theory as part of their regular degree programmes. The goal of such courses is not necessarily to turn such students into librarians, textual scholars, or theorists—though I suppose we wouldn't complain if some of them discovered a previously unknown interest. Rather, it is to ensure that students have a background in such fundamental areas sufficient to allow them to conduct their own research without making basic mistakes or suffering unnecessary delays while they discover by trial-and-error things that might far more efficiently be taught to them upfront in the lecture hall.

In the case of technology, I believe we have now reached the stage where we need to be giving our students a similar grounding. We do not need to produce IT specialists—though it is true that a well-trained and knowledgeable Digital Humanities graduate has a combination of technological skills and experience with real-world problems and concepts that are very easily transferable to the private sector. But we do need to produce graduates who understand the technological world in which we now live—and, more importantly, how this technology can help them do better work in their home discipline.

The precise details of such an understanding will vary from discipline to discipline. Working as an Anglo-Saxonist and a textual critic in an English department, I will no doubt consider different skills and knowledge to be essential than I would if I were a church historian or theologian. But in its basic outlines such a orientation to the Digital Humanities probably need not vary too much from humanities department to humanities department. We simply should no longer be graduating students who do not know the basic history and nature of web technologies, what a database is and how it is designed and used, the importance of keeping content and processing distinct from each other, and the archival and maintenance issues involved in the development of robust digital standards like Unicode and the TEI Guidelines. Such students should be able to discuss the practical differences (and similarities) of print vs. web publication; they should be able to assess intelligently from a variety of different angles the pros and cons of different approaches to basic problems involving the digitisation of text, two and three-dimensional imaging, animation, and archival storage and cataloguing; and they should be acquainted with basic digital pedagogical tools (course management and testing software; essay management and plagiarism detection software) and the new digital genres and rhetorics (wikis, blogs, social networking sites, comment boards) that they are likely to be asked to consider in their future research and teaching.

Not all humanists need to become Digital Humanists. Indeed, in attending conferences in the last few years and observing the increasingly diverging interests and research questions pursued by those who identify themselves as "Digital Humanists" and those who define themselves primarily as traditional domain specialists, I am beginning to wonder if we are not seeing the beginnings of a split between "experimentalists" and "theorists" similar to that which exists today in some of the natural sciences. But just as theoretical and experimental scientists need to maintain some awareness of what each branch of their common larger discipline is doing if the field as a whole is to progress, so too must there remain an interaction between the traditional humanistic and digital humanistic domains if our larger fields are also going to continue to make the best use of the new tools and technologies available to us. As humanists, we are, unavoidably, making increasing use of digital media in our research and dissemination. If this work is to take the best advantage of these new tools and rhetorics—and not inadvertently harm our work by naively adopting techniques that are already known to represent poor practice, we need to start treating a basic knowledge of relevant digital technology and rhetorics as a core research skill in much the same way we currently treat bibliography and research methods.

Works Cited

Adobe. nd. "Adobe Coldfusion 8." http://www.adobe.com/products/coldfusion/

Evertype 2003-2006. "Evertype: About Michael Everson." http://www.evertype.com/misc/bio.html

Robinson, Peter. 2005. "Current issues in making digital editions of medieval texts—or, do electronic scholarly editions have a future?" DM 1.1 (2005): http://www.digitalmedievalist.org/journal/1.1/robinson/

Sperberg-McQueen, C. M. 2007. "C.M. Sperberg-McQueen Home Page." http://www.w3.org/People/cmsmcq/

Wikipedia contributors. 2008. "David Megginson." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=David_Megginson&oldid=257685665

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Digital Plagiarism

Posted: Dec 15, 2008 13:12;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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Essay and test management software

I have recently started using plagiarism detection software. Not so much for the ability to detect plagiarism as for the essay submission- and grading- management capabilities it offered. Years ago I moved all my examinations and tests from paper to course management software (WebCT originally, now Blackboard, and soon Moodle). I discovered in my first year using that software that simply delivering and correcting my tests on-line—i.e. without making any attempt to automate any aspect of the grading—reduced the time I spent marking exams by an immediate 50%: it turned out that I had been spending as much time handling tests (sorting, adding, copying grades, etc.) as I had marking them—more, in fact, if you included the in-class time lost to proctoring and returning corrected work to students.

I long wondered whether I could capture the same kind of efficiencies by automating my essay administration. Here too, I thought that I spent a lot of time handling paper rather than engaging with content. In this case, however, I was not sure I would be able to gain the same kind of time-saving. While I was sure that I could streamline my workflow, I was afraid that marking on screen might prove much less efficient than pen and paper—to the point perhaps of actually hurting the quality and speed of my essay-grading.

My experience this semester has been that my fears about lack of efficiency in the intellectual aspects of my correction were largely unfounded. And that my hopes for improving my administrative efficiency closely reflected the actual possibilities. The amount of time I spend handling a given set of essays has now dropped by approximately the expected 50%. While marking on screen is slower than marking with a pencil (a paper that used to take me 20 minutes to mark now will take 24 to 25 minutes), the difference is both smaller than I originally feared and more than compensated by the administrative time-savings, again including the class time freed up from the need to collect and redistribute papers.

Detecting plagiarism

Although I use it primarily for essay management, plagiarism dedection software such as turnitin, the system I use, was, of course, originally designed to detect plagiarism—which means that I too can use it to check my students’ originality. The developers remind users that a lack of originality is not the same thing as plagiarism: plagiarism is a specific type of lack of originality and even good pieces of work will have numerous passages in common with other texts in the software’s database. Obvious examples of this include quotations from works under discussion and bibliographic entries. It is also quite common to see the occasional short phrase or clause flagged in otherwise original work, especially at the beginning of paragraphs or in passages introducing or linking quotations. Presumably there are only so many ways of saying “In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen writes…”. In shorter papers, in fact, it is not unusual to see non-plagiarised student papers with as much as 30%-40% of their content flagged initially as being as “non-original.”

Some students, however, actually do plagiarise—which I understand to mean the use of arguments, examples, or words of another as if they were one’s own. When marking by hand, I’ve generally considered this to be a relatively small problem. In twelve years at the University of Lethbridge, I’ve caught probably less than ten students whose work was significantly plagiarised. Obviously I’ve never been able to say whether this was because my methods for discovering such work were missing essays by more successful plagiarists or because the problem really wasn’t that significant. Using plagiarism detection software gave me the opportunity of checking how well I had been doing catching plagiarists the old fashioned way, when I was marking by hand.

To the extent that one semesters’ data is a sufficient sample, my preliminary conclusions are that the problem of plagiarism, at least in my classes, seems to be more-or-less as insignificant as I thought it was when I graded by hand, and that my old method of discovering plagiarism (looking into things when a paper didn’t seem quite “right”) seemed to work.1 This past semester, I caught two people plagiarising. But neither of them had particularly high unoriginality scores: in both cases, I discovered the plagiarism after something in their essays seemed strange to me and caused me to go through originality reports turnitin provides on each essay more carefully. I then went through the reports for every essay submitted by that class (a total of almost 200), to see if I had missed any essays that turnitin’s reports suggested might be plagiarised. None of the others showed the same kind of suspicious content that had led me to suspect the two I caught. So for me, at least, the “sniff test” remains apparently reliable.

How software improves on previous methods of detecting plagiarism

Even though it turns out that I apparently can still rely on my ability to discover plagiarism intuitively, there are two things about plagiarism detection software that do mark an improvement over previous methods of identifying such problems by hand. The first is how quickly such software lets instructors test their hunches. In the two cases I caught this semester, confirming my hunch took less than a minute: I simply clicked on the originality report and compared the highlighted passages until I discovered a couple that were clearly copied by the students without ackowledgement in ways that went beyond reasonable use, unconscious error, or unrealised intellectual debt. Working by hand would have required me to Googling specific phrases from the paper one after the other and/or go to the library and to find a print source for the offending passages. In the past it has often taken me hours to make a reasonable case against even quite obvious examples of plagiarism.

The second improvement brought on by plagiarism detection software lies in the type of misuse of sources it uncovers. Although I became suspicious about the originality of the two papers I caught this semester on my own rather than through the software’s originality report, the plagiarism I uncovered from the originality report was in both cases quite different from anything I have seen in the past. Instead of the wholesale copying from one or two sources I used to see occasionally when I marked by hand, the plagiarism I found this year with turnitin involved the much more subtle use of unacknowledged passages, quotations, and argument and at key moments in the students’ papers. In the old days, my students used to plagiarise with a shovel; these students were plagiarising with a scalpel. I’m not completely sure I would have been able to find the sources for at least some of this unacknowledged debt if I had been looking by hand.

A new kind of plagiarism

This is where my title comes in. It is of course entirely possible that students always have plagiarised in this way and that I (and many of my colleagues) simply have missed it because it is so hard to spot by hand. But I think that the plagiarism turnitin caught in these two essays this semester actually may represent a new kind of problem involving the misappropriation of sources in student work—a problem that has different origins, and may even involve more examples of honest mistake, than we used to see when students had to go to the library to steal their material. Having interviewed a number of students in the course of the semester, I am in fact fairly firmly convinced that what turnitin found is a symptom of new problems in genre and research methodology that are particularly to the current generation of students—students who are undergoing their intellectual maturation as young adults in a digital culture that is quite different from that of even five years ago. What they were doing was still culpable—the great majority of my students were able to avoid misappropriating other peoples’ ideas in their essays. But new technologies, genres, and student approaches to note-taking are making it easier for members of the current generation to “fall into” plagiarism without meaning to in ways that previous generations of students would not. In the old days, you had to positively decide to plagiarise an essay by buying one off a friend or going to the library and actually typing text out that you were planning to present as your own. Nowadays, I suspect, students who plagiarise the way my two students did this semester do so because they haven’t taken steps to prevent it from happening.

Digital students, the essay, and the blog

This first thing to realise about how our students approach our assignments has to do with genre. For most (pre-digital) university instructors, the essay is self-evidently the way one engages with humanistic intellectual problems. It is what we were taught in school and practiced at university. But more importantly, it was almost exclusively how argument and debate were conducted in the larger society. The important issues of the day were discussed in magazines and newspapers by journalists whose opinion pieces were also more-or-less similar to the type of work students were asked to do at the university: reasoned, original, and polished pieces of writing in which a single author demonstrated his or her competence by the focussed selection of argument and supporting evidence. The value of a good essay—at the university or in the newspaper—lay in the author’s ability to digest arguments and evidence and make it his or her own: find and assimilate the most important material into an original argument that taught the reader a new way of understanding the information and opinions of others.

For most contemporary students, however, the essay is neither the only nor the most obviously appropriate way of engaging with the world of ideas, politics, and culture. Far more common, certainly numerically and, increasingly, in influence, is the blog—and making a good blog can often involve skills that are anathemetic to the traditional essay. While it is possible to publish essays using blog software, the point of blogs, increasingly, is less to digest facts and arguments than to accumulate and react to them. Political blogs—like the Ed Morrisey’s Captain’s Quarters (now at Hot Air, or Dan Froomkin’s (Whitehouse Watch)—tend to consist of collections of material from other on-line sources interspaced with opinion. The skill an accomplished blogger brings to this type of material lies in the ability to select and organise these quotations. A good blog, unlike a good essay, builds its argument and topic through the artful arrangement and excerpting of usually verbatim material passages from other people’s work—in much the same way that some types of music are based on the original use and combination of digitised sound samples from earlier recordings.

In other forums this method of “argument by quotation” is the norm: every video worth anything on YouTube has at least one response—a companion video where somebody else picks up on what the original contributor has done and answers back, usually with generous visual or verbal quotation. Professional examples include the various Barack Obama tributes that were a defining feature of the 2008 Democratic Primary in the U.S. (examples include the work of Obama Girl= and will.i.am= ). But amateur examples are also extremely common—as was the case with the heavy amateur response to the question of whether the “(lonelyGirl15)” series of 2005 was actually a professional production.

The real evidence of the evolving distinction between the essay and the blog as methods of argumentation and literary engagement, however, can be seen in the blogs that newspapers are increasingly asking their traditional opinion columnists to write. It is no longer enough to write essays about the news, though the continued existence and popularity of the (on-line and paper) newspaper column shows that there is still an important role for this kind of work. Newspapers (and presumably their readers) also now want columnists to document the process by which they gather the material they write about—creating a second channel in which they accumulate and react to facts and opinions alongside their more traditional essays. Among the older journalists, an example of this is Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times, who supplements his column with a blog and other interactive material about the subjects he feels most passionate about. In his column he digests evidence and makes arguments; in his blog he accumulates the raw material he uses to write his columns and presents it to others as part of a process of sharing his outrage.

In the case of our students, the problem this generic difference between the blog and the essay causes is magnified by the way they conduct their research. On the basis of my interviews, it appears to me that most of my first year students now conduct their research and compile their notes primarily by searching the Internet, and, when they find an interesting site, copying and pasting large sections of verbatim quotation into their word processor. Often they include the URL of this material with the quotations; but because you can always find the source of a passage you are quoting from the Internet, it is easy for them to get sloppy. Once this accumulation of material is complete, they then start to add their own contribution to the collection, moving the passages they have collected around and interspacing them with their opinions, arguments, and transitions.

This is, of course, how bloggers, not essayists, work. Unfortunately, since we are asking them to write essays, the result if they are not careful is something that belongs to neither genre: it is not a good blog, because it is not spontaneous, dynamic, or interactive enough; and it is not a good traditional essay, because it is more pastiche than an original piece of writing that takes its reader in an new direction. The best students working this way do in the end manage to overcome the generic mismatch between their method of research and their ultimate output, producing something that is more controlled and intellectually original than a blog. But less good students, or good students working under mid- or end-of-term pressure, are almost unavoidably leaving themselves open to producing work that is, in a traditional sense at least, plagiarised—by forgetting to distinguish, perhaps even losing track of the distinction, between their own comments and opinions and those of others, or by collecting and responding exclusively to passages mentioned in the work of others rather than finding new and original passages that support their particular arguments.

This is still plagiarism: it is no more acceptable to misrepresent the words and ideas of others as your own in the blogging world as it is in the world of the traditional essay. And in fact it is more invidious that the older style of plagiarism that involved copying large chunks out of other people’s work: in the new, digital plagiarism, the unackowledged debt tends to come in the few places that really matter in a good essay: the interesting thesis, the bold transition, the surprising piece of evidence that make the work worth reading. Because it is so closely tied to new genres and research methods, however, this type of plagiarism may also have as much a cultural as a “criminal” motivation. In preventing it, instructors will need to take into account the now quite different ways of working and understanding intellectual argument that the current generation of students bring with them into the classroom.

Advice to the Digital Essayist

So how can the contemporary student avoid becoming a Digital Plagiarist?

The first thing to do is realise the difference between the essay and the blog. When you write an essay, your reader is interested in your ability to digest facts and arguments and set your own argumentative agenda. A blog that did not allow itself to be driven by current events, incidents, and arguments in its field of endeavour—whether this is an event in the blogger’s personal life or the ebb and flow of an election campaign—would not be much of a blog. Essays are not bound by this constraint, however: they can be about things nobody is talking about and make arguments that don’t respond to anybody. Even when, as is more normal and probably better, essays do engage with previous arguments and topics that are of some debate, the expectation is that the essayist will digest this evidence and these opinions and shape the result in ways that point the reader in new directions—not primarily to new sources, but rather to new claims and ideas that are not yet part of the current discourse.

The second thing to realise is just how dangerous the approach many students take to note-taking is in terms of inviting charges of plagiarism. In a world of Google, where text is data that can be found, aggregated, copied, and reworked with the greatest of ease, it is of course very tempting to take notes by quotation. When people worked with paper, pens, and typewriters, quotation was more difficult and time-consuming: when you had to type out quotations by hand, writing summaries and notes was far quicker. Nowadays, it is much easier and less time-consuming to quote something than it is to take notes: when you find an interesting point in an on-line source, it uses far fewer keystrokes (and less intellectual effort) to highlight, copy, and paste the actual verbatim text of the source in a file than it does to turn to the keyboard and compose a summary statement or not. And if you are used to reading blogs, you know that this method can be used to summarise even quote long and complex arguments.

There are two problems, however. The first is that this method encourages you to write like a blogger rather than an essayist: your notes are set up in a way that makes it easier to write around your quotations (linking, organising, and responding to them) than to digest what they are saying and produce a new argument that takes your reader in unexpected directions.

The second problem is that it is almost inevitable that you will end up accidentally incorporating the words and ideas of your sources in your essay without acknowledgement. It is easy, in reworking your material, to drop a set of quotation marks, or to start paraphrasing something and then end up editing it back into an almost verbatim quotation—without realising what you’ve done. And it is even easier to get sloppy in your initial note-taking—forgetting to put quotation marks around passages you’ve copied or losing the source URL. Once you add your own material to this collection of quotations in the file that will eventually become your essay, you will discover that it is almost impossible to remember or distinguish between what you have added and what you got from somebody else.

One way of solving this is to change the way you take notes, doing less quoting and more summarising. Doing this might even help you improve the originality of your essays by forcing you to internalise your evidence and arguments. But cutting and pasting from digital sources is so easy that you are unlikely ever to stop doing it completely—and even if your do, you are very likely to run into trouble again the moment you face the pressure of multiple competing deadlines.

A better approach is to develop protocols and practices that help you reduce the chances that your research method will cause you to commit unintentional plagiarism. In other words to find a way of working that allows you to keep doing the most important part of what you currently do (and are going to continue to do no matter what your instructors say), but in a fashion that won’t lead you almost unavoidably into plagiarising from your sources at some point in your career.

Perhaps the single most important thing you can do in this regard is to establish a barrier between your research and your essay. In a blog, building your argument around long passages of text that you have cut and pasted into your own document is normal and accepted; in essay writing it isn’t. So when you come to write an essay, create two (or more) files: one for the copying and pasting you do as part of your research (or even better, one file for each source from which you copy and paste or make notes), and, most importantly, a separate file for writing your essay. In maintaining this separate file for you essays, you should establish a rule that nothing in this file is to be copied directly from an outside source. If you find something interesting in your research, you should copy this material into a research file; only if you decide to use it in your essay should should you copy it from your research file into your essay file.In other words, your essay file is focussed on your work: in that file, the words and ideas of others appear only when you need them to support your already existing arguments.

An even stricter way of doing this is to establish a rule that nothing is ever pasted into your essay file: if you want to quote a passage in your text, you can decide that you will only type it out by hand. This has the advantage of discouraging you from over-quoting or building your essay around the words of others—something that is fine in a blog, but bad in an essay. If this rule sounds too austere and difficult to enforce, at least make it a rule that you paste nothing into you essay before you have composed the surrounding material—i.e. the paragraph in which the passage is to appear and the sentence that is supposed to introduce it. Many professional essayists, especially those who learned to write before there were word-processors, actually leave examples and supporting quotations out of their earliest drafts—using place holders like “{{put long quotation from p35 here}}” to represent the material they are planning to quote until they have their basic argument down.

Another thing you could try is finding digital tools that will make your current copy-and-paste approach to note-taking more valuable and less dangerous. In the pre-digital era, students often took notes on note cards or in small notebooks. They would read a source in the library with a note card or notebook in front of them. They would begin by writing basic bibliographic information on this card or notebook. Then, when they read something interesting, they would write a note on the card or in the notebook, quoting the source if they thought the wording was particularly noteworthy or apt. By the time they came to write their essays, they would have stacks of cards or a series of notebooks, one dedicated to each work or idea.

There are several ways of replicating (and improving on) this method digitally. One way is to use new word-processor files for each source: every time you discover a new source, start a new file in your word-processor, recording the basic information you need to find the source again (URL, title, author, etc.). Then start pasting in your quotations and making your notes in this file. When you are finished you give your file a descriptive name that will help you remember where it came from and save it.

Using your word-processor for this method will be cumbersome (you’ll spend a lot of time opening and closing files), difficult to use when you come to write (in a major essay you might end up with tens of files open on your desktop alongside the new file for your essay), and difficult to oversee (unless you have an excellent naming system, you will end up with a collection of research files with cryptic sounding names of which you have forgotten the significance). And if you can’t remember the specific source of a given quotation or fact, it will be hard to find later without special tools or opening and closing each file.

But other tools exist that allow you to implement this basic method more easily. Citation managers such as Endnote or Refworks, for example, tie notes to bibliographic entries. If you decide to try one of these, you start your entry for a new source (i.e. the equivalent of your paper notebook or note card) by entering it in the bibliographic software (This will also allow you to produce correctly formatted bibliographies and work cited lists quickly and automatically later on when you are ready to hand in your paper in). You then use the “notes” section as the place for pasting quotations and adding comments and notes that you might want to reuse in your paper. There is no problem with naming files (your notes are all stored under the relevant bibliographic entry in a single database), with moving between sources (you call up the each source by the bibliographic reference), and in most cases you will be able to use a built in search function to find passages in your notes if you forget which particular work you read them in.

Bibliographic databases and citation managers are great if all your notes revolve around material from text-based sources. But what if you also need to record observations, evidence, interviews, and the like that cannot easily be tied to specific references? In this case, the best tool may be a private wiki—for example at PbWiki (or if you are computer literate, and have access to a server, a private installation of MediaWiki, the software that runs the Wikipedia).

We tend to think of wikis as being primarily media for the new type of writing that characterises collaborative web applications like the Wikipedia or Facebook. In actual fact, however, wikis have a surprising amount in common with the notebooks or stacks of note cards students used to bring with them to the library. Unlike an entry in citation management software, wiki entry pages are largely free-form space on which you can record arbitrary types of information—a recipe, an image (more accurately a link to an image rather than the image itself), pasted text, bibliographic information, tables of numerical data, and your own annotations and comments on any of the above. As with an index card, you can return to your entry whenever you want in order to add or erase things (though a wiki entry, unlike an index card preserves all your original material as well), or let others comment on. And as with note cards you can shuffle and arrange them in various different ways depending on your needs—using the category feature, you can create groupings that collect all the pages you want to use in a given essay, or that refer to a specific source, or involve a particular topic. Of course unlike notes cards which had to be sorted physically, wiki entries can simultaneously belong to more than one grouping; and because they are stored in a database, you can search your wiki automatically, looking for passages and ideas even if you don’t remember where you saw them.

However you decide to solve this problem, the most important thing is to avoid the habit which is most likely to lead you into (unintentionally) plagiarising from your sources: starting an essay by copying and pasting large passages of direct quotation into the file that you ultimately intend to submit to your instructor. In an essay, unlike a blog, the point is to hear what you have to say.


1 I now take back the claim that this is as insignificant as I thought. In the year-end papers, I found a surprisingly large number of papers with plagiarised passaged in them (five or six out of sixty with perhaps one or two doubtful cases). At the same time, a paper-by-paper review of the originality reports still seems to confirm that one can rely on one’s hunches—I’ve not yet found plagiarism in a paper that didn’t seem right as I was reading it. The larger number of hits is coming from the ability turnitin is giving me to check my hunches more easily and quickly, The pattern I describe above of writing between large quotations and paraphrases still seems to be holding true, however—as is the age or generational difference: my senior students are not nearly as likely to write essays like this.

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