“Learn” Discussion Forums, Knowledge Sharing, and Privacy, Part 3

On Apr. 8, I commented on one student’s concerns about accessing each other’s online assignments.  Today, I’ll wrap up thoughts about knowledge sharing and privacy in the “Learn” Discussion Forums by commenting on a second student concern about privacy.  The question (paraphrased):  does assignment sharing make it easier for students to steal each other’s ideas?  This is of course, a form of plagiarism.

From an Australian site—Academic Knowledge Development—I found a useful link inviting viewers to compare two views about whether or not online assessment increases the risk of plagiarism.  I favour the first view:  I don’t believe that assignment sharing within a close-knit community encourages plagiarism.  In fact, a degree of transparency around assignment submissions reduces the chances of plagiarizing, either from scholarly sources or from other students.  In Rhet&WWW, the fact that students could (and in fact were encouraged to) look at others’ work in process and final assignments made it far more difficult to get away with passing a fellow student’s work off as their own.  It would have been an egregious violation of not only academic ethics but of the community and social standards (tacit and explicit) governing our course site—standards the students themselves had some say in creating.

That’s all very well for me, but what about other online teaching practices or policies?  I found not much linking plagiarism concerns with online discussion forums until I added “assessment” to my search and found, among other sites, the Australian Flexible Learning Network’s guide to assessment and online teaching.  Here is one of the Network’s guiding principles:

If teachers are to engage in new forms of teaching and take advantage of the greatly enhanced teaching options now possible through online and mixed-mode teaching then it stands to reason that we need to unpack assessment options and issues if online teaching and learning is to be maximised.  (Assessment, 2004)

One option for assessment is making assignments available for other students.  Mind you, I didn’t require students to assess each other’s work in any formal way; I just provided opportunities for peer feedback (which few took advantage of) and encouraged students to comment on anything they found useful in another’s work.  For that reason, plus the fact that only two students out of 24 expressed concerns about “open” assignments, I’m not sure whether most students in Rhet&WWW found it disconcerting to reconceptualize “private” as “public.”

A text aimed at students—Learning online:  a guide to success in the virtual classroom (2004)—explains that online instructors employ several valid methods to help prevent “cheating on assessments.”  One is cooperative learning:

Assignments are made that require some degree of cooperation and coordination among students … [and] make it difficult for a student to find consistent [outside] help throughout a project of some duration and complexity.  (Lynch, 2004, p. 179)

Another method is to make all assessments (assignments) “open book” as well as substantive (p. 179) … which, in a way, describes the open-forum assignments in Rhet&WWW.

Explorations of online assessment, such as the Australian Flexible Learning Network guide, make it clear that an online syllabus must spell out policies and requirements around academic honesty, crediting each other’s ideas, and using online resources ethically.  Institutional boilerplate used in most course outlines may or may not address the “knowledge sharing” issues that arise in courses based on cooperative learning (online or otherwise)—in which case, the instructor must.  I relied on some boilerplate for my syllabus, but also developed my own description of knowledge sharing and privacy issues, some of which I’ve shared in this series of three entries.  I also embedded requirements about citation and ethical use of sources within assignment descriptions.

Could I have done more?  Undoubtedly.  Scaffolding, scaffolding, scaffolding!

Now, privacy of the web site itself, as well as instructor feedback and marks, constitute separate issues.  The institution and instructor must ensure the security of the course site, and information about individual grades has to be kept confidential (a departmental requirement that fulfills Manitoba’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act).  During Week 1, students found this information in the course syllabus:

While you need to post assignments in forums rather than submit them to me privately, the larger public will not have access to any work submitted in this site.  All instructor feedback and marks for assignments are private information and will be conveyed to you within “Learn” via your personal Drop Box (which only you can access) or by Private Message.  No one but you will receive this information.  For team assignments, each member will individually receive instructor feedback and the mark for the team.

 To respect privacy requirements, then, the following basics must be in place:

  1. The institution must ensure the security and privacy of the web environment. 
  2. Online instructors must be aware of and follow departmental and legal policies concerning information and privacy. 
  3. On Day 1, online instructors should clarify for students what materials and topics are private between the student and instructor (and why), and what materials form part of the community’s knowledge base (and why). 

In retrospect, that might have been an excellent conversation to have with my students as we explored the rhetoric(s) of the web:  the rewards and the risks of making each other’s work freely available within a learning community via discussion forums.  Among other things, an open-assignment pedagogy seemed to me a valid way of enhancing accountability.  While much is made (and rightly so) about reciprocity, engagement, and collaboration in online community building, I think we need to do more work around accountability and consider “best practices” that will enhance it.



Australian Flexible Learning Network.  (2004).  Assessment and online teaching.  Australian National Training Authority.  Retrieved 9 April 2007 from http://www.flexiblelearning.net.au/guides/assessment.pdf

Lynch, M. M.  (2004).  Learning online:  a guide to success in the virtual classroom.  New York:  Routledge.

~The End~


1 Comment

Filed under Online Learning

One response to ““Learn” Discussion Forums, Knowledge Sharing, and Privacy, Part 3

  1. Knowledge sharing/privacy

    Hi Amanda,

    Very interesting post. I agree with the idea that we have to be explicit about our intentions around assessment, and that when we are working in a space that affords both private exchanges between students and instructors, and public exchanges between students, it is important to clarify how assessment will function between these spaces. There is another level to the private/public issue, too. When learning environments also contain fancy things like wikis or weblogs, there is a potential that public means public to the world, and indeed, I have worked on courses where anyone could come in and read or view student work. In some cases, this is seen as an advantage as the public nature of the work adds authenticity to the endeavour. In other cases, it could become a breach of the learning community itself and lead to a slightly inhibited space for learning. In several writing courses where we use weblogs, for instance, none of the work is visible to the public and only some of the material students post is public to others students in the course. Some of their entries are private and only seen by their instructor. Or, as the example you offer, students may be engaged in private discussions while working on a project yet have the product of their collaboration in a public space. It is essential that some care be taken by designers when making such decisions, as students can quite rightly feel a bit anxious about the issue (particularly when assessment is involved).

    What I do like is that it is possible to move between public and private spaces to suit different kinds of interaction/communication between students. It is also possible to have special kind of public spaces that might, for example, only be public to students in a course or program. All of these approaches have merit, especially as students are inspired by seeing one another’s work.

    There are some pretty clear rules concerning how we conduct research on students in most universities, but I’m wondering if the rules concerning how we might position student work in archives/portfolios/community knowledge bases, etc., are clearly articulated anywhere. In several MET courses, for instance, student work stays available to subsequent students who take the course. The students who authored that work “own” it, but we continue to use it and make it available. Should students be signing some kind of consent? I know some profs who have considered making sure that any work in the course is released under some kind of creative commons licensing, but what if students didn’t want to do that. I expect that people who have been developing portfolio approaches have dealt with this issue.

    I’m sure that this issue will only grow as students choose to use their own writing spaces/tools when fulfilling academic requirements. We are already seeing students showing up with elaborate website/weblog and other such spaces. Why can’t they extend a space they are already using so that it also feeds into the academic side of their life?


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