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Friday, January 29, 2016

Charlie writes:
Practical Ethics at Ashesi University: Discipline inspired by faith

Clipart from Troy State University's website: "Plagiarism: It's Not a Laughing Mattter"

Teaching at Ashesi University College is an honor, but the ethical component of the work became more intense this last term.

I was teaching Ashesi first-year students studying business administration or management information systems an introduction to computing and programming course. That course's broad syllabus includes topics like how to generate a strong password, what is the internet, scientific prefixes used in computing, building and using basic databases, navigating email and the moodle-based software used for classes at Ashesi, and constructing a personal Linked-In page. We also introduced computer programming, using javascript, the "language of the web."

After designing an interactive web page with javascript, we went on to develop an electronic "battleship" game. In class, we showed how a series of buttons on the page could be linked to functions to play this game. The second programming assignment had the students generalize the individual button functions into a single handler with a parameter in order to make the code easier to read or extend. We also wanted the students to realize that editing existing code is often part of programming work.

The students pushed back that they were having problems with this assignment, so we presented other examples of functions with arguments and extended the deadline.

While grading the submissions we realized that many of them were either identical or very similar to others. On my invitation, Ashesi's Dean of Students presented the school's position about copying work on individual assignments the following week. I set about warning the 15 students who had submitted solutions identical to one or two others.

Ashesi uses an "Informal Resolution" process, where instructors can administer various sanctions in cases where a student has not kept with the standards we expect. The instructor can select from a range of sanctions less severe than failing the class, and the student my accept that sanction or appeal to the Ashesi Judicial Council (AJC) if they feel unfairly punished. The lecturer must report the evidence and the sanction to the Dean of Students, to prevent any student from avoiding AJC after multiple "Informal Resolutions" in different classes.

I initially proposed a sanction of a zero on the assignment plus a warning, but after having administered this to the 15 students, our Dean felt the school's administration wouldn't find that sanction rigorous enough.

My missionary colleague spent some time the next week coaching me through what message I needed to send, and what sanctions I felt sent that message. I ended up with a two-tier scheme. After further examination, I found there were 20 additional students who had submitted nearly identical solutions, changed just enough to avoid detection by submitting identical files. These seemed a more serious issue, deserving of a more severe sanction.

Side-by-Side comparison of two submissions, red text identical, green text changed slightly to hide the plagiarism.

I constructed a somewhat more complicated game as a makeup assignment, which we expected each of the 35 students to complete without copying each other's work. This makeup was worth no points, but was required in order to pass the course. Both groups were given a zero on the original assignment. The group with similar submissions were also docked a half grade on their final course grade.

The logistics of meeting with the original fifteen students a second time, the 20 new students, executing the agreements, presenting evidence in one case of a student who had a prior "Informal" and whose case was promoted to the AJC directly, and the emotions raised over the whole scandal were probably the most difficult few weeks I have experienced here at Ashesi. Yet, after a few weeks of time away and reflection over how I enforced expectations, I feel the effort was consistent with Ashesi's mission to train a new generation of ethical entrepreneurs who will transform Africa.

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