Learning from the future

It's time to start exchanging gifts and sharing cultures with the digital natives who are our students, says Fintan Culwin

August 21, 2008

The problem of plagiarism in academic work is too readily dismissed as laziness or a degradation of standards by academics.

But the truth is that undergraduates who have grown up in a cut-and-paste world of file sharing and social networking find it difficult to know where lines of ownership are drawn. We as academics need to understand this culture if we are to influence it, or we risk becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Today's students are digital natives, and come to university with iPods and other devices full of music and videos that they have obtained largely by swapping and sharing, but rarely by purchasing. In their culture, digital sharing allows gifts to be given with no cost to the giver. Music and video have a far greater utility than text, and the dominant textual genres are informal, including instant messaging, Facebook entries and blogging.

The digital natives are now leaving the classrooms to conduct their social-constructivist negotiation of meaning and knowledge in blogs, forums, social networking sites and virtual words that are all but invisible to most academics. What is seen as mass disengagement is in fact a change in the media of technology-enhanced learning being driven by students. When asked why he did not reply to emails from a tutor, one student said: "I'm sorry, I only use email to talk to old people!" If some of your colleagues have not even begun to use email, consider how far their culture has become removed from that young student.

This new "culture of sharing" is as alien to most academics as the strictures associated with referencing and attribution are to many undergraduates. While we attempt to invite, or in some cases coerce, students into our culture, we often dismiss new channels of communication and associated genres of literacy - or even fear them.

Generations of students ago, acculturalisation to higher education was an imperialist process. The values and practices of the dominant political group, namely the academic staff, were imposed on the dominated political group, the students. Little or no discussion or dissent was permitted.

This began to change as UK higher education expanded in the 1990s. As it grew, it also became more democratised, and the previous imperialist legitimacy disappeared when the 1997 Dearing report placed individual and social need on a par with scholarly inquiry.

The history of literacy and education is littered with pronouncements of the imminent death of all that is currently valued. The Romans despaired of the introduction of vowels into text and spaces between words. The medieval Church felt threatened by movable type. More recently, the radio, the telephone, comics, the Biro and television were seen as harbingers of the death of scholarship.

At the end of the 20th century, the PC arrived and with it computer games, the world wide web and email, all fodder for the prophets of doom. The mobile phone brought text messaging, and - most recently - Web 2.0 brought social networking. These previous threats did not kill off literacy, and scholarship adapted to the new technologies and climates and was strengthened by them. The same will surely happen again as long as we are prepared to adapt. Only by doing this can we understand how this culture might be changed to allow for an understanding of the importance of originality.

Over a five-year period in my department at London South Bank University, we have seen the gross headline percentage of non-original material in student submissions decline, even as tools became more adept at locating it. Moreover, there were qualitative changes in the way in which non-original material was used with more quotation, attribution and discussion. The result has been a decline in the number of students subject to academic integrity investigation and a change in the ethos, where students have even challenged tutors who have failed to attribute their slides properly.

Plagiarism remains unacceptable in academic work and research, but we as academics cannot assume that the knowledge of this rule is implicit. We need to acculturalise to this new emerging culture, or risk becoming as irrelevant as a black-and-white TV in an age of YouTube.

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