Term Papers and the Internet

The internet is making original thought obsolete.

As teachers we do not ask for blinding insights, just original work. Yet, access to the internet makes it too easy for students to avoid thinking by allowing effortless regurgitation of other people’s work, with sufficient modification to avoid plagiarism.

One (or maybe two) decades ago, a term paper required library research, and this usually resulted in a framework that placed the researched material in an analytical context of the student’s own making. It made the teacher’s job as reader and evaluator that much more interesting. We teachers do not want to read what other experts say – indeed, we are keenly interested instead in what our own home-grown talent can come up with after we have finished teaching them.

Neverthless, research on the internet is here to stay. But its presence is not benign. There are 3 levels of problems that I perceive:

  • Level 1 – Cheating & Plagiarism. I have stopped giving students a term paper to write as it became an exercise in frustration for me. Too many papers read as if there are two different writers, as the term paper oscillates between the student’s own writing style and that of the phantom from the web. I am often able to quickly google the source, which is only referenced half the time.

  • Level 2 – Absence of Originality. Even when the source is cited, there seems little point, as the bulk of a term paper ends up lacking original thought. Its all legal if you cite your source, but then what did the student do that a librarian could not?

  • Level 3 – Information death spiral. Web sources are often not first- hand thought, but rehashed from other web sites. So not only is the material turned in not original, its just plain poor quality. You can imagine what brain damage is being inflicted on people who have to grade this stuff. So I dont.

I am running scared – my own son does all his research on Wikipedia. He knows perfectly well how to stay legal and cite his sources, being told this in school and much more severely by both parents. But does he think when writing? Not sure – he knows how to argue his case with parents, but thats not original thought either. Amazingly, his school has a software that they use which works out how much of the submission was original, presumably by discounting all words in quotes or something like that (i don’t know for sure). It may also be that it references web search engines to match large sections of the turned in paper. So people are wary of the problem, and there is an attempt to redress it.

Looking up reference material is not bad per se, but making it too easy means there is no lag time between sourcing and production, which in the past when we went to the library interspersed some thinking time in between. This process of digesting the material so as to diverge and build from it one’s own living and breathing original contribution, is seemingly a retreating phenomenon.

My solution has been to require in-class project presentations. This does not prevent the creation of powerpoint slides that are mere distillations from the web. But it does force the students to think through their presentations, and to defend their projects in class. This can only be an interim solution. There must be some other way to induce deep, independent thought (yes, I know, its writing a PhD theses). Everyone cannot do doctoral work, but yes, every one can be a scholar. I hope the web does not impede this.


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