CSI: Google Docs Unit

There was a recent incident of copying in one of my classes, and it involved shared Google Documents. The students were allowed to work together on their initial research, but were supposed to write individual reports, and one student seems to have just paraphrased another student’s finished report.

I initially felt pretty upset about it, and it had me thinking about whether I had set up an environment that encouraged the copying by having such an open and initially collaborative project. I think I will definitely tweak some of my approaches to the use of shared document collections, etc. in the future, especially where summative assessments are involved.

However, on reflection I have also decided that things aren’t as bad as I initially thought. In fact, I feel OK overall about Google Docs, how we used it for sharing project documents within the class, and the way things went down. Here are some reasons why:

  1. The copying was obvious, and I watched it happening almost in real time. Because the relevant student documents were all in one place, and because I had viewing rights on all of them, I saw what happened as it happened, and went from there. If these projects had been all on paper, or handed in separately, it’s possible that my radar wouldn’t have gone off and I wouldn’t have seen the similarities. One point for Google Docs.
  2. I could back up my suspicions with exact revision history and timestamps. The student hadn’t gone through the research and drafting steps the project needed, and there was a trail of virtual breadcrumbs that showed his work suddenly appearing all at once after the other student’s. Another point for Google Docs.
  3. This demonstrated how silly assignments are that rely on “correct answers”. In a world where resources and student work are shared, and where it’s simple for students to copy large slabs of text from the Internet or each other within seconds, I need to challenge myself to invent assessment tasks where no one could possibly succeed by cutting and pasting or by using another’s work. In other words, if the student had been able to have gotten away with copying, then it wasn’t a well-designed assessment task. I think I’m moving in the right direction, but I think this will push me to create more higher-order thinking in projects, and really make sure to assign students to create products that show more individual analysis from each student. One more point for Google Docs.
  4. The online “crime” was not inconsistent with the student’s offline behavior. This is something this particular student would have tried to do on paper, or offline. Some students always try to find shortcuts. I don’t think the shared Google Doc environment created the misbehavior, and I haven’t seen any incidents like this at all from students who weren’t prone to that sort of thing in the first place. In other words, this wasn’t Google Docs’ fault, it was an attempt to continue old behavior in a new space.
So, while I’m still upset that there was an incident like this, and while I’m going to rethink some things about this and similar projects, I think it was a positive step towards my learning how to navigate sharing and student work in the future, and I think, if I had it to do over again, I would still have used Google Documents for this project. Case closed… ?

4 thoughts on “CSI: Google Docs Unit

  1. Alex,
    Really enjoyed reading your post. Great use of Horatio I might add! I think you nailed it on the head when you made the point that this sort of cheating would take place with or without technology. Also the fact that you could take a look at the revision history and see that “all of a sudden” someone finishes a piece similar to their classmate as he/she finished really bodes as a strength for using Google Docs in the classroom.
    The incident has also pushed you to dig deeper as an educator. You said that you are going to make assignments that ask students to create products that show more individual analysis from each student. This is certainly a good thing to strive for and shows the incident will impact your future lessons in a positive way. Nice reflection!

  2. Thanks for sharing both your initial reaction and your final conclusions. Great to see how Google Docs helped you close the case. I think many of my teachers will find this post useful. We are just getting started with Google Docc. Good for them to see this problem up front and start seeing how to avoid it.

  3. Alex, this was very interesting to read. As I was reading the blog I was saying in my head “See, kids can’t deal with collaborative projets, they will mis-use it!.” You proved me wrong. What you said makes sense. I should have known better as a school counselor. “The online “crime” was not inconsistant with the student’s offline behavior.” Kids I work with also don’t have separate moral compass for online and offline activities.

    It’s really unpleasant to find student doing this kind of stuff. Thanks for sharing your experience, and reflection. I have learned an important lesson.

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