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Stob latest: It was a cunning trick, says Open University

Pull the other one

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We were beginning to think unworthy thoughts: Did they know what object oriented analysis was? And were they actually capable of distinguishing between a coherent paper, and one of composed of gibberish? (You may recall that at one point, authors Madanmohan and De discussed the use of "Artificial Intelligence" in selecting open source code.) The Open University seemed in no hurry to dispel this notion.

Eventually word came on down from high – Darrel Ince.

It began, ominously, "There are two issues intertwined in the query from the Register journalist; the use of an article which plagiarises another article and the practice of asking students to read and comment on research papers."

Actually, no. We wanted to know why gibberish had found it’s way onto the course. Perhaps Ince thought we'd forgotten?

The second issue is that of asking students to read and comment on academic papers. The OU, along with virtually every other university, exposes students to research papers and research articles — usually in the third year of an undergraduate degree course or at any time in a postgraduate degree course. Such articles are challenging to read; for example, they have to tie up every loose knot in describing a piece of research and, hence, can be somewhat convoluted.

But “tying up loose knots” is an exercise in making complicated things comprehensible. The paper Ince's department had put before students was the opposite: It made simple concepts incomprehensible.

Ince then rowed away down the path he had chosen:

There are a number of reasons for exposing students to research papers:

  • In a department where the subject area is advancing rapidly, for example computer science, it would be irresponsible not to give the students an opportunity to read important material before it is incorporated into undergraduate and postgraduate textbooks.
  • An aim of every course, be it undergraduate or postgraduate, is to equip students with the intellectual skills that they will need in the outside world. Not only will some of our students have to read research and development articles but also challenging technical documents. It would be irresponsible not to prepare our students for this.
  • Both undergraduate and postgraduate courses require students to prepare a dissertation. This is a lengthy work which can be as much as 30,000 words in length and which requires the student to consult research and development papers and articles. Developing such a piece of work can be extremely difficult; one of the difficulties being accessing and understanding articles such as the one published in IEEE Software. In order to minimise the culture shock associated with developing a dissertation, the Department of Computing, along with every other scientific university department, exposes students to articles in their courses prior to the student starting a dissertation. Not to do so would be irresponsible.

All worthy boilerplate blather, but irrelevant to the question. Quite amazingly, Ince had managed to avoid the issue we'd raised, and simply substituted one of his own choosing. Questions of general competence were now foremost in our minds.

Then, quite dramatically, another explanation was offered.

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