Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/10/14/verity_stob_further_eduation/

Verity's further education

How the OU can restore its reputation

By Verity Stob

Posted in Verity Stob, 14th October 2008 10:00 GMT

Stob The story so far: I stumped up nearly £1000 for an OU computer course (M885 Analysis and design of enterprise systems: an object-oriented approach) and was surprised when the second piece of homework was based on a paper by Madanmohan and De' comprising, in part, plagiarised gibberish. I drew this to the attention of my OU tutor, and then to the OU course chair. Neither was interested, and instead urged me to "[take] the paper at face value irrespective of any doubts you may have". Eventually, the IEEE admitted the plagiarism.

El Reg's Andrew Orlowski contacted the OU to try to find out what was going on. He received a most peculiar set of replies, culminating with a wild suggestion from their communications director Derek Prior that the choice of a garbage paper had been deliberate, that anyone noticing that the paper was duff was 'right on the money', and that my reaction had been 'exemplary'. But he was then unable to explain why my attempts to point out exactly this information had been shrugged off, and my answer to question 2 awarded null points.

As a Reg commenter astutely observed, it seemed to be a case of the OU emulating Captain Mainwaring's fondly-remembered but unconvincing attempts to claim credit retrospectively: "Well done, Pike - I was waiting for somebody to spot that."

Return of the PR person

Now the OU has put in another PR expert to sort it all out for us (Mr Prior presumably having retired hurt). Jane Dillon, head of media relations, sends us the following comment, which she hopes "in the interest of balance" will appear in its entirety.

Certainly, Ms Dillon. Here you go:

The Open University has given The Register a full explanation of the use of the article questioned by Verity Stob. To date, that explanation has not been fairly represented in The Register's reporting. The first two chapters of this postgraduate course are meant to equip students with skills to critically examine sources of new information in this emerging field of knowledge, which is a standard expectation of any postgraduate education. The assignment in question tests students' ability to critically evaluate content. The text is not part of the teaching material for the course, but a means to let students demonstrate mastery of the first two chapters of the course. It is ironic that this blog, and subsequent posts, largely illustrate the purpose of the course: the encouragement of robust and open debate.

This seems to me to be a reiteration of Mr Prior's position, adding very little and addressing none of the big issues, but let's walk through it a bit at a time.

The first two sentences are a matter of the Reg's word against the OU's, which I cannot usefully discuss. You must make up your own mind, dear reader. That brings us to:

The first two chapters of this postgraduate course are meant to equip students with skills to critically examine sources of new information in this emerging field of knowledge, which is a standard expectation of any postgraduate education.

Actually I think Ms Dillon means 'the first chapter' where she writes 'the first two chapters', as by the time we were supposed to attempt question 2, we had only read chapter 1 of the course. (By the way, Ms Dillon, I still have all the PDF files relating to M885 to hand. Do let me know if by any chance you are missing some or all of them. Don't want to be fighting a lost cause with one hand tied behind your back.)

Even allowing this, I am afraid I don't recognise chapter 1 from Ms Dillon's description. Let me sketch it for you. It's one of those introductory chapters that starts with a dismissal of that ever-popular straw man, the waterfall development process, discovers iterative development and all the associated advantages, then goes on to provide summaries and definitions of familiar OO terms such as 'object' and 'class' and 'UML' and 'pattern'. And that's it. No equipment for critically examining sources of new information that I can see. What would such a thing look like?

But perhaps I have missed it. If Ms D would like to cite any passage of chapter 1 that supports her suggestion, I would be intrigued.

The assignment in question tests students' ability to critically evaluate content.

Indeed, it tests it to destruction.

But it doesn't ask for critical evaluation in the answer. Check out the text of question 2, if you don't believe me. Now question 1, that's a different saucepan of sardines. That does indeed ask for 'critical appreciation of the article, based on your views'. But it's a different question on a different article in a different week.

And there again - sorry to labour this point everybody, but, straightforward though it is, the OU seems to struggle with it - if the intention was to test students' ability to 'perform critical evaluation', why weren't my emails to the OU pointing out that the paper was gibberish greeted with loud cries of congratulation? Why was I instead huffily directed to answer question 2 as posed? And why was my answer, based entirely upon accurate critical evaluation, given zero marks?

The text is not part of the teaching material for the course

Don't be silly. Certainly it is part of the teaching material. Somebody at the OU framed a whole homework question around it, and included a direction to read it. If it was not teaching material, what was it then - padding?

And, by way of illustrating that it was teaching material, I'd point out that we have all learned from it. Consider those students who bodged together compliant answers to question 2 (as indeed I considered doing), and duly (I suppose) picked up marks for their trouble. They have learned at least two things: that a paper doesn't have to make sense to get published and cited and used by the OU, and that answers to such a paper similarly can earn academic bounty. An excellent piece of teaching. Well done.

The text is not part of the teaching material for the course, but a means to let students demonstrate mastery of the first two chapters of the course.

(I guess you mean the first chapter again.) At first I thought to pooh-pooh your suggestion, because superficially the paper has nothing to do with M885. The paper is about use of open source software. Where it does drift into coherency, it discusses notably non-OO development issues such as how to evade the GPL.

But looking at the paper again, I think you are right to imply that there was an intention of a connection. The course text attempts a specific definition of the word 'component', and devotes about two thirds of a page to it. The Madanmohan and De' paper mentions 'components' many times. If one had not troubled to read it properly - for example, just skimmed the introductory paragraph and the subheadings - one might have supposed the paper to bear upon component-based development as touched upon by the course.

Quite how we get from there to the "demonstration of mastery", I fail to follow. Have I just demonstrated my mastery? Well, better out than in, as they presumably say in Milton Keynes.

It is ironic that this blog

Call El Reg a 'blog' again and I will personally come round and bite your ankles, Ms D. And if you attempt to press assault charges, I feel sure the boys at Vulture Central will be prepared to help cook up a suitable alibi for me.

It is ironic that this blog, and subsequent posts, largely illustrate the purpose of the course: the encouragement of robust and open debate.

Ah, now I see where I went wrong. I thought the purpose of M885 was to teach UML to elderly persons, such as myself. And to be fair to me, the prospectus is strikingly silent on this apparently key 'debating' aspect.

To conclude: I am terribly afraid, Ms Dillon, that I don't believe your explanation. I think that the most likely thing to have happened is that the OU stuck a paper that it hadn't properly read into M885. I suspect that when I pointed this out, it was found to be much less work to ignore and dismiss me than, for example, read my objections to see if I was right. Now that the light of day has fallen upon the affair, the OU is twisting itself into knots to maintain a logically indefensible position.

To clear this up to everybody's satisfaction, all the Open University needs to do is:

  1. Admit its mistake.
  2. Apologise to the students of my presentation.
  3. Adjust upwards the grade of anybody who would benefit from TMA01 Q2 not being considered towards his or her assignment scores (NB: I personally would gain nothing from such a reassessment).
  4. Encourage course setters on M885 to read papers in future before sticking them into a TMA.

How about it? It would be a PR triumph for you. Everybody likes it when a bureaucracy unexpectedly does the right thing and owns up. It restores one's faith in human nature.

Certainly, the above four-point plan does represent a little loss of face and a few hours' work. I offer you as compensation the thought that I have spent much more time than this just trying to make sense of Madanmohan and De'. ®