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I ENJOYED THE PROCESS of lecturing on mathematics. And, apparently, so did my students (if their anonymous surveys were to be believed). Even though I am computer-friendly, I’m not sure I’d thrive on today’s Covid-related online learning.

William Davies addresses aspects of this in “How Many Words Does It Take to Make a Mistake?” in London Review of Books, February 22, 2022. 

Davies’ title concerns automated assessment of learning, just one of these aspects. Others include take-away lectures and exams, mass-produced homework—and plagiarism. Here are tidbits gleaned (gad, not plagiarized)  from this article, together with my usual other sleuthing.

Who is This Plagiar Fellow Anyway? To an Ancient Greek, plagios meant “crooked, oblique, hence figuratively treacherous…. From Greek plagios, Late Latin derives plagium, a kidnapper, whence LL plagiārius, a plunderer, a kidnapper (of another’s slaves), whence the English plagiary.” 

Or so it says in Eric Partridge’s Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English.

If I had omitted the quotes and citation, of course, I’d be a plagiarist.

Plagiarism and TurnItIn. Will Davies is Professor in Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London. “In my role as chair of the exam board in my department,” he writes “it falls to me to chair plagiarism hearings, and this awkward icebreaker serves as a way of establishing whether or not the student concerned understands the allegation being made.”

Davies continues, “Our students submit their coursework essays online as Word documents or PDFs. A few years ago, my department took the decision to run them automatically through the plagiarism-checking software TurnItIn, which generates a percentage ‘score’ gauging an essay’s similarity to other digitally available documents, including journal articles, websites and all the other student essays from around the world that have been scanned by TurnItIn.” 

Scores of 30 percent or more “usually indicate that something is wrong; in a large number of these cases the essay will contain text matching internet sources or essays submitted elsewhere – evidence that this student may have used an essay mill or essay bank. A study by the University of Swansea in 2018 found that one in seven students in the UK admitted to using an essay mill. The government has recently pledged to make essay-writing services illegal, but that won’t stop operations based overseas.”

A.I. and TurnItIn. Artificial Intelligence could be a game-changer in this: Davies observes, “The problem waiting round the corner for universities is essays generated by AI, which will leave a textual pattern-spotter like TurnItIn in the dust. (Earlier this year, I came across one essay that felt deeply odd in some not quite human way, but I had no tangible evidence that anything untoward had occurred, so that was that.)”

Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll continue sharing Professor Davies cogent views as well as wacko recollections of my own. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022 

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