The internet has helped cheats, and plagiarism can be hard to spot. There are handy ways to check validity, Phil Thane discovers
Plagiarism in essay writing is not a new problem, but the internet has made it easier to do and harder to spot. Pupils need to learn how to gather and interpret information, rather than simply copying, and how to acknowledge sources and quotes correctly.
One method is Mind Mapping, popularised by Tony Buzan in several books. Many teachers will have used "spidergrams" on flip charts or whiteboards. It's a versatile technique that can be used in any subject area.
But how to get from an untidy sprawling diagram littered with notes to a pristine project? Mind Mapping software takes care of that, and crucially it allows you as a teacher or examiner to see how a piece was created, and to check the sources.
With a mind map, you start with a central idea with branches leading from it. For example, for a "Life and Works of ..." project, you might create a starter map including family, social and political context, early life, education, friendships, career and old age and death as the key idea.
Starting with "family", the pupil would branch out to parents, brothers and sisters; or from "education" to school and college. Each idea links to a simple text editor where the pupil can write or cut and paste text, pictures or links. Each branch may have sub-branches. Any idea can be moved, detached from its branch and moved around.
While researching parents, for example, the pupil may discover an eccentric aunt or influential grandparent. No problem, it's easy to go back to the map and add new branches.
Pupils often start a project knowing little about the topic, so the original map can be wrong. Perhaps the subject was home-schooled, or came from a poor 18th-century family and had no schooling at all. If so, they can delete their first guesses of "school" and "college" and add more appropriate branches.
The next stage for the pupil is to go into each idea box and rewrite it, replacing the notes and copied chunks with their own interpretation, but keeping the links and references.
Obviously this doesn't come naturally to them - that's where teaching comes in - but editing a single small section like this is less daunting than contemplating a big project.
The final stage is to convert the map into continuous text. Some applications number the branches, others work clockwise so that the central idea becomes the header and introduction.
The text can be exported to a word processor application. If an essay is required, then the pupil can delete the paragraph numbers and work on their prose style. Any links and references in the text can be converted to footnotes.
Pupils using Mind Mapping learn how to organise an extended piece of work and present it properly. The teacher can compare the final text with the earlier map to see how the piece was created.
If sections are copied and not acknowledged as quotes, that's plagiarism. If the finished project bears no resemblance to the planning stage you might suspect outside help.
The internet is the greatest source of information available to most pupils. We should not be worrying about it - we should be teaching them to use it properly.
Phil Thane is a freelance writer, part-time teacher and ICT specialist
Free, open-source software packages such as Freemind (http:freemind.sourceforge.net) and VYM (View Your Mind - http:sourceforge.netprojectsvym) have been used in business and higher education for many years. Kdissert (www.kde.org.ukappskdissert) is intended for university dissertations.
All could be used by teachers but a commercial product may be a better choice for younger pupils, such as Tony Buzan's own iMindMap (www.imindmap.com).