In their own words, it was with the best of intentions that computer science student Jort de Bokx in 2016, together with a fellow first-year, built the website cs-students.nl (see panel). Students could ask each other questions, propose solutions and put forward explanations and, moreover, assign these a handy ranking and share files. Until a lecturer caught wind of the site and what was being shared there, some of it inappropriately. Unwittingly inappropriately, asks De Bokx.
Until recently academic integrity was a theme that was really addressed only towards the end of the Bachelor's, tells Erik de Vink, Program Director of Computer Science and Engineering. Students embarking on the final project phase of their Bachelor's are required to sign a piece of paper confirming that they have taken note of TU/e's academic code of conduct, a declaration that includes an undertaking that they will not copy another's work, will correctly state their sources and will conduct only reproducible research. “An attempt to shut the stable door before the horse bolts,” as De Vink puts it.
Not that fraud and plagiarism committed by students at Computer Science are by any means regular events, he hastens to add - although the last five annual reports of the Examination Committee do show a rise: from two students caught per year in the academic years 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 to nine, thirteen and four recorded fraudsters per year in the years following.
De Vink's predecessor Marloes van Lierop, now a senior policy officer, points out that the numbers mentioned will to some extent involve students who are involved in one and the same case, “where, for example, the completed assignments of two individuals bear a striking resemblance to one another.”
In very serious cases, or when the offence is repeated, a person can be excluded by the program's Examination Committee from attending all exams for a period of time, “but that is a very severe punishment,” says Van Lierop. “Often a warning is all it takes.”
But better still, both she and De Vink are of one mind in thinking, would be for students to start thinking from day one about their own attitude and actions as (up-and-coming) academics. Reason enough for the Program Management to include the subject explicitly in this year's curriculum as part of Professional Skills, for which students in the Bachelor College must develop a number of activities over their three years. These skills (together good for five ECTS during the Bachelor's) are not scheduled as a course in one of the quartiles, but are embedded in other courses in the form of various skills lines.
At Computer Science, the theme of academic integrity was addressed in the second quartile within the skills line Reflecting. First-years received, among other things, a lecture about what integrity actually is and were introduced to the Stanford Code of Conduct and the code of conduct of the computer science profession.
De Vink: “Students often have no idea that they are committing plagiarism, that, for example, they are sharing copyrighted material but haven't got permission to do so. First-years in particular, I notice, have a very strong need for clear rules. Preferably, they'd like to hear on a course by course basis what is permitted and what is not.”
For the professional skill of Reflecting, this past quartile first-years were required to come up with a case of their own, “preferably drawing on their own experience, or based on a dilemma they could potentially face as a student,” says Van Lierop. They also had to discuss their case with their peers (in sessions supervised by the TU/e CareerCenter) and subsequently reflect on this discussion in a self-made video.
Van Lierop: “We have a great many international students here - some of whom come from a background in which copying the teacher's behavior is seen as completely normal, and is actually even regarded as a way of paying tribute. It's very educative to discuss something like this in a group of students and thus to learn how another person comes to hold their standpoint.”
In addition, for computer scientists engaged in professional practice it is customary to copy existing methods that have proven their worth. “It's also something the community promotes and encourages by way of open source software. But that is in contrast with what is desirable in the learning situation we have here at TU/e. On the contrary, we want students not to use each other's code,” says De Vink.
But the pressure students are under is increasing, according to Van Lierop - and with it the temptation to take the easy road. She sees a link with the introduction of the Bachelor College at TU/e (in 2012), which saw a considerable increase in the number of occasions on which students are assessed during an academic year. “Students have to perform all the time.”
De Vink adds, “More and more students seem to be mainly concerned with getting sixes instead of with genuinely learning something. Some students, moreover, regards themselves as customers; they pay the tuition fee and are therefore ‘entitled’ to a diploma. But of course that's not how it works.” According to Van Lierop this is also partly a question of culture and upbringing. “With my own children I drilled it into them that they had to do their homework and get a degree; I never said they had to learn something.”
The community promotes open source, but that is in contrast with what is desirable in the learning situation here
The inclination among students to help and share is something Van Lierop says she well understands - as she does the initiative of the two first-year students mentioned above to knock up a handy website to do just this. “There are few things more educative that explaining something to someone else. But that is rather different from passing on to one another complete assignments and ready-to-use workings out of problems. That teaches you nothing.”
With the video assignment introduced this year, the Program Management of Computer Science hopes very deliberately to have set first-years thinking. The yield has been some two hundred and twenty short, low-profile videos, all of which having been assessed against a set of fixed criteria by De Vink, Van Lierop and four colleagues. Van Lierop is enthusiastic, “I have the impression that students have reflected seriously on their cases and on the consequences for their own learning process. And we feel the video format is working very well. For the most part, the students easily got the hang of it and we can review their work more quickly than a report.”
In what shape or form the ‘academic code of conduct’ theme will recur in the second year of Computer Science has yet to be decided, according to Van Lierop. “Within the Bachelor College six professional skills have been identified that must be addressed once in each year. So in the second year there will be another reflection assignment, in a different guise.”
“You want to help each other, but at uni that's not always the best way to go”
In their own words, it was with the best of intentions that computer science student Jort de Bokx in 2016, together with a fellow first-year, built a website. Students could ask each other questions, propose solutions and, moreover, assign these a handy ranking and share files. Until a lecturer caught wind of what was being shared there, some of it inappropriately.
It was initially a WhatsApp group, two-and-a-half years ago, in which many first-year Software Science students, among them De Bokx, soon found like-minded souls. “A group of some two hundred friends,” says the student, but with an explicit focus on study-related questions and with the aim of helping one another.
The downside, says De Bokx, was that questions were frequently repeated. “Before Christmas I had spoken to a friend about how it could all be made more manageable. We built a site that was a bit like stackoverflow.com; a large and popular website for people in software science.”
On cs-students.nl (now offline) questions could be asked, and fellow users could give answers. “And when you typed in a question, other similar questions popped up right away.” The answers given by fellow users could be ‘assessed’, using the thumb sign, by site visitors; the best answer could be marked with a check by the person asking the question, which moved it to the top of the list.
A few weeks after the launch the makers found out that the software they were using also supported file-sharing. “That had happened in the past on WhatsApp; test results had been taken from Osiris, for example. Course syllabuses were also uploaded in this way, it was really handy.” At the time, a certain course was setting weekly assignments, tells De Bokx. “We thought, let's post the answers we've written ourselves on the site, after the homework deadline, of course. That seemed like a useful thing to do; a good exercise.”
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
The site was running just fine, was repeatedly fine-tuned, and eventually had some five hundred users - mainly Software Science first-years, but also students in other years and on other programs. “We thought, it works, it's being used, we don't need to look at it every day. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. A bit lax maybe, but as moderators we took a step back.”
Until in early March 2018 when Program Director Marloes van Lierop contacted the student. Evidently a lecturer had complained to her, and some of the complaint concerned the students' solutions to homework assignments (marked and with comments added) that had been shared on the site. De Bokx himself had uploaded various items, including a self-made audio recording of a lecture given by the lecturer in question.
“It was a lecture in which exam material was discussed, a number of friends couldn't come, and because this lecture wasn't going to be recorded and distributed by TU/e as a video lecture, I thought, ‘I can summarize it for them, but I can also record it and share it with them.’ I didn't think it would be that much of a problem if I did it myself.” In time, he shared his recordings - as was later made clear to him, illegal recordings - on the site, “that seemed convenient.”
He says he genuinely didn't realize that by making and sharing the recording he was breaking any rules, De Bokx assures me. “Ignorance”, is how he describes it now. The student says he well understands that the lecturer raised the alarm. “As the site's administrators we also loosened the reins too much. But we were checking, for example, that people weren't sharing books via the site. Still, some things slipped through.”
At a certain point it was virtually impossible to keep track of what was being shared in the way of questions, answers and materials, according to the student - while, as it later transpired, inspection was indeed necessary. On their own initiative, the makers took down their site and De Bokx apologized by email to the lecturer who was displeased. Matters didn't get as far as a follow-up talk between the two, nor were any measures taken by the department.
Nevertheless, the matter still haunts him to some extent. For example, he was later taken on as a student assistant on the course he had taken the previous year with the above-mentioned lecturer (but which was now being taught by a colleague), but a couple of weeks later, when homework assignments needed to be marked, he was let go. Regrettable, he feels, “but at some level I understand the decision. There's no mutual trust.”
De Bokx, himself now a third-year and a first-year mentor, thinks it is a good thing that academic integrity has become an explicit theme within the Professional Skills. It provides a nice opportunity to explain to newcomers in particular what happened to him, despite all every good intention.
Not that he is worried that students are likely to knock up a similar site - but the sharing of files via diverse channels, from Google Drive to WhatsApp, is, he says, common practice these days. There's “a bit of the high-school mentality”, as he describes it. “You want to help each other, you all want to pass the year and together you stand strong. But at uni that's not always the best way to go.”
Above all, he wants first-years to know this: be careful about what you share. “Even if a warning is all you get, you'll have to do the rest of your program with eyes boring into your back.” At any rate, in the WhatsApp groups he's now part of, people have become more careful, he says. “When someone asks something now, they tend to get a semi-cryptic answer. People don't give literal answers any more, rather they suggest a certain site or give some other nudge in the right direction.”
Practicing the thought process
A welcome exercise in your own thought process about ethics. That's how first-year Esther Mendel sees the video assignment in the Reflecting skills line. Because, she believes, most people are well aware what is and is not permitted where, say, fraud is involved, “but there are also instances in which it isn't very clear at all.”
Among first-years, she may be an exception, but yes, as Mendel herself says, she has sometimes thought about academic integrity and what it means to her as a student. “This is because on most courses the lecturers have mentioned the concept; this made me curious about what exactly the university says in its rules on this. And anyway, I find it interesting to think a bit about the ethics involved in some cases, especially when it isn't all that clear whether rules are being broken.”
In view of this, she thinks it's a good thing that the subject has been given a higher-profile role in the Bachelor College program, the result of its being labeled as a professional skill. “As a rule, people know what they can and can't do when it comes to fraud. But there are also cases in which it is not so clear. It's useful to practice going through the thought process that's involved in case you ever encounter an incident like this in real life.”
Mendel is a first-year student of Psychology & Technology, but was keen to also study some of the learning trajectories offered by Computer Science - “or perhaps even do a double Bachelor's”. Which is how she came to be one of the more than two hundred students who got busy making a personal reflection video this past quartile. An enjoyable assignment, says Mendel.“When you are talking about your experiences and about how they made you feel, you can convey your message better than when you're typing it out.”
In her video, Mendel discusses the course Introduction to Discrete Structures, for which students had to submit four assignments spread over the quartile, followed on each occasion by feedback given during a tutorial hour. “We weren't given the answers on paper, because the lecturers preferred not to have them handed around outside this year's class of students, with a view to the assignments possibly being used next year. But during the tutorial hour we could simply copy them off the board.”
Mendel compiled a document consisting of the answers she had copied down and her other notes, which she used to help her own learning process. “But I came undone when other students on the course asked whether I would share my document with them. This presented the risk of them being spread, after all, beyond the members of this year's class.” It's an interesting case, as she herself feels. “When the answers end up nevertheless being spread beyond the class, how much responsibility does everyone involved have?”
Mendel earned a ten for her video, which in her own opinion wasn't “all that spectacular. I just sat in front of the camera and talked for three minutes”. But she did find it a useful exercise. “What I mainly learned was all the things you have to consider if you find yourself in a difficult situation. Especially for students who will later go on to do research, I think it is important to know how they should handle these kinds of situations.”