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Perspective

Cut and paste skill

In the Internet world, what the term paper teaches is unrecognized.

By JASON JOHNSON Washington Post
Published April 1, 2007


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WASHINGTON - Today I plagiarized multiple documents at work. I took the writing of others and presented it to my supervisor as if it were my own. It was an open secret that my entire report, written "by Jason Johnson," had been composed by others and that I had been merely an editor. Instead of a reprimand, I was rewarded with a postbriefing latte.

But on some level, it still felt wrong. Before coming to work at my current company, I spent most of the past 15 years as an educator, advising students from second-graders to college seniors that taking the work of others and presenting it as your own is morally wrong and intellectually dishonest. I've fretted over proper citations and labored with students over the highly subjective art of paraphrasing.

Now I watch my former teaching colleagues grade papers not simply by marking a dangling participle here or an incomplete thought there, but by Googling phrases from their students' work, searching for the suspected source of yet another cut-and-paste job. I wonder if that's really what teachers should be doing. As kids today plagiarize more and more from the Internet, the old-fashioned term paper - composed by sweating students on a typewriter as they sat elbow-deep in reference books - has no useful heir in the digital age. It's time for schools and educators to recognize the truth: The term paper is dead.

Students' work today looks more like the slick work report I had "written" than any original academic achievement. The problem isn't due to a dramatic decline in young people's moral character, nor the rise of the Internet and its endless bounty. The problem is that schools have relied too long and too heavily on the paper as the most significant method of evaluating students. But that's going to have to change.

Teachers have a vexing problem: how to test what students really know. The time-honored paper now teaches students a very different skill set, one that appears to be unintentional and largely unrecognized - but one that's much closer to what I do at work these days.

My transfer from education to the world of business has reminded me just how important it is to be able to synthesize content from multiple sources, put structure around it and edit it into a coherent, single-voiced whole. Students who are able to create convincing amalgamations have gained a valuable business skill. Unfortunately, most schools fail to recognize that any skills have been used at all, and an entire paper can be discarded because of a few lines repeated from another source without quotation marks.

The educational system needs to acknowledge what the paper is today: more of a work product that tests very particular skills - the ability to synthesize and properly cite the work of others - and not students' knowledge, originality and overall ability.

Jason Johnson, former technology director at Washington's Lowell School, is an information technology consultant at Ingenium Corp.

[Last modified April 1, 2007, 01:01:08]


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