In our Viber group, a departmental colleague shared an excerpt from a student's exam script. The student wrote down the title of Jhumpa Lahiri's book "The Interpreter of Maladies" as "The Translator of Disease". As English teachers, we are more prone to receiving funny and nonsensical use of the foreign language every now and then. Often, we have to re-track the thought process of our students to make sense of their garbled up expressions. The usual problems arise when students think in Bangla and try to translate their thoughts into English without the control over the target language. Typically, we notice problems with grammar and vocabulary, but the change in the title of the book was something new. The only explanation we could come up with was that the student had used a paraphrasing tool to avoid the online plagiarism checker of our online learning management system.
At ULAB we have a zero tolerance policy against plagiarism. All online assignments and submissions go through an originality checker allowing us to detect copied material. The attempt to bypass the artificial intelligence by the student raises some serious concerns about e-learning and assessment. It adds to a larger problem that goes beyond the simple assumption that our education is in crisis.
According to an article published in Plagiarism Today, "synonomised plagiarism" is a new threat for education. There is a scheming enterprise that is profiting simply from changing the contents of published materials and presenting them as something new. For instance, Shakespeare's oft quoted adage "To be or not to be that is the question" can be changed to "To exist or not to exist that is the query" to beat the plagiarism checker. There is another trend of academic cheating that is becoming rampant. Students (often researchers and scholars) use double translations to camouflage the original source. For instance, an article written in English can be first changed into Russian and then back to English. Then by fixing the usual errors, the same article/essay can be given a new look. The rush for publications and ranking is often blamed for such deceitful attempts. However, a human examiner's discerning eyes can be more vigilant than the computer algorithm—something that our students (and colleagues) often do not realise.
While online teaching has its pros, we need to be alert to some of its cons. The normalisation of cheating is one of them. What worries me more is the mindset: we are raising a tech savvy generation that finds it thrilling to beat the system. Moral scruples take a back seat as searching for cheat-codes in computer games or even hacking the system becomes normal. For many students, online learning is an extension of the games they play. As educators, we have tried to adjust to the new reality of online teaching in the last one year, but there is a growing concern over its impact on our students.
Given the lack of devices and internet data concerns, we cannot always insist on having live classes. Many students do not turn on their videos citing privacy or technical issues. There is no way of verifying whether these students are actually attending their classes, let alone sitting for their own examinations. The regular temptation to cheat has become a part of their behavioural essence.
As someone who studied science up to the Higher Secondary, I often ask myself what good was it to dissect those frogs in my biology lab or to wait for the nitrate ring to appear in my chemistry lab classes! I now know that they have taught me patience and made me curious about life. But in a simulated classroom, what lessons are we giving to our students? Are we teaching them: life always gives you a second chance because the recording of the classes will be made available? A white lie can give you a relaxed submission deadline as technology is known to be treacherous? Not every delay has to be associated with traffic jam and not every assignment has to be eaten up by dogs?
I am probably overstating the concerns. There are many students who have taken full advantage of technology to express themselves in many different multimodal creative ways. In a normal semester, we get to see performances of skits or wall papers as class presentations. This year many of our students have made short films, created animations using online apps, curated blogs, which you normally do not expect in a traditional English department classroom. Many of them signed up for online courses with overseas universities through Coursera to learn new things. Online teaching and learning has allowed them to find this type of freedom. Many others are bogged down.
Thankfully, there are talks of reopening of schools in February. The influence of the lockdown has been overwhelming for most of the students. According to a recent report more than "500,000 children under 18 in England, with no previous problems, will need mental health care due to the devastating economic, health and family pressures caused by the ongoing coronavirus crisis" (RT.com). The long term closure of schools has given rise to depression with suicidal thoughts, self-harm and eating disorders. I do not know of any survey on Bangladeshi children involving the impact of coronavirus on their mental makeup. Before moving to online teaching, my institution's student affairs office did conduct a survey in April 2020. We asked questions about the students' confidence level on dealing with online courses, support structures at home, stress management, financial concerns, healthy lifestyles including food habit, spirituality, physical exercise, substance abuse and so on. The gathered information has allowed ULAB to migrate to online teaching quite successfully; more than 90 percent of students have re-registered in the last three semesters, proving that our students have confidence in our mode of delivery. We are all beginning to see the benefits of blended learning, and are optimistic of maintaining this hybrid model even after the lockdown is over. The move towards online teaching has tested our resolution. We have learnt to adopt and adapt, to outpace and outgrow the virus and its atrophies.
Nevertheless, in the last one year, we have also learnt how stressful online learning can be. The over reliance on non-human entities has grown in the absence of human interactions. Our behaviour has become automatic and mechanical. If someone dies, we do not shed tears; we write RIP or post an emoticon. In the hyperreal world of social media, we create avatars to curate some constructed images of our selves. We no longer see anything bad in such false representations. As Oscar Wilde once put it, "Illusion is the first of all pleasures". The student paper that I referred to at the beginning can boast of its ingenuity. Instead of trying to use the source with proper citations, the student concerned simply ran it through an app to defamiliarize it and present it as an original work. They probably had a self-gratifying feeling thinking that they could outwit the system. I will be worried if this feeling stays with her/him even after s/he graduates. That person will turn out to be a cheat without realising that the only person he/she is cheating is himself/herself. The problem is that they are not alone. The system is allowing many such individuals to thrive and flourish in full glory. It is about time we run a reality check on our virtual avatars.
Shamsad Mortuza is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.