When The Virtual Course IS the Plagiarism

Due to the ongoing pandemic, schools across the country (and the world) are facing tough decisions about balancing in-person and virtual learning. This has been especially challenging on schools and teachers that have limited experience with virtual learning as they’ve not only had to make a difficult transition but learn a whole new way of teaching.

However, the state of North Carolina has a long history of virtual learning. For decades, the state has used virtual education as a means to supplement physical classrooms. This has primarily taken the form of virtual advanced, honors and other courses for schools that cannot afford to have them in person.

As part of that, the state has the North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS), a virtual public school that was founded in 2007 and is administered by the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI). NCVPS is open to students across the state and, as of last year, had more than 32,000 students enrolled, making it the second-largest virtual public school in the country.

However, that system has recently found itself under fire. An audit by the the North Carolina State Auditor, Beth Wood, found that eight of the twelve virtual courses they examined did not meet required curriculum content standards and that eleven of the twelve classes may not meet standards for rigor.

DPI heavily disputes this audit, claiming that the methodology was flawed and failed to take into account the teacher, the classroom or student feedback. However, the State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis did thank Wood for her “candor” and promise to use the information from the audit to improve.

But, while the audit is damming, it’s actually an story five years in the making. Interestingly, it’s a story that began with one student and her family catching what can only be described as plagiarism in an NCVPS course.

Plagiarism as a Warning Sign

In 2015, John Scanlon’s daughter was taking an honor’s history course through NCVPS. The daughter began to struggle with the course saying that it was difficult to follow the subject and that the tests were not aligning with the information in the course.

As such, she began searching for other resources and found that at least some of the material was plagiarized from outside sources.

According to Scanlon, when he approached DPI about the issues, they responded saying that their daughter was a “honors class wannabe” and seemed to dismiss the allegations.

This prompted Scanlon to file a complaint, which in turn prompted the audit. Wood herself cited the family’s role in prompting the investigation when presenting the findings to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee.

That audit looked at 12 of the 126 courses that NCVPS offers and found that eight of the twelve did not meet curriculum content standards and that eleven of the twelve may not meet standards for rigor.

However, the findings of the audit are disputed by both the State Board of Education and DPI itself. They claim that the methodology of the audit was flawed and incomplete.

That said DPI has said it is taking steps to address concerns raised by the audit. They claim that concerns over two of the courses were already addressed in 2018 internal audit and new software was instated detect plagiarism in course material and teachers were trained on “copyright compliance.”

DPI has also stated it intends to put all its courses through a Quality Matters Review. Currently, only 22 of their courses have been certified by Quality Maters. According to DPI, Quality Matters is a non-profit and their certification is the “gold standard” when it comes to certifying online courses.

Despite the proposed changes, Scanlon himself seems less than satisfied with the outcome saying in an interview with NC Policy Watch, “We were never looking for vindication, and do not gain any satisfaction from today’s hearing.” He went on to say that he was “disheartened” that the State Board of Education and DPI’s response, which he claims focuses on protecting their image.

Either way, the audit is a major blow for the NCVPS and the image of virtual education broadly. On that front, this could not have come at a worse time.

Eroding a Very Fragile Trust

As the pandemic forces more schools to go virtual or hold more virtual classes, understandable worries about the quality of education arise. Parents and educators alike worry whether online-only classes can provide comparable instruction to an in-person classroom.

One of the issues, predictably, is academic integrity. Online education opens new challenges in enforcing academic integrity as the lack of in-person and environmental control makes it easier for students to cheat or otherwise take shortcuts. Whether this leads to an actual increase in cheating is the subject of both great debate and conflicting studies.

However, one issue that hasn’t gotten a great deal of attention is the course material itself. Instructors and schools are being tasked with producing a whole new set of materials, what happens when some of those materials turn out to be plagiarized from outside sources?

To be clear, this can and does happen with in-person classes. Though the vast majority of instructors are honest and follow academic integrity standards, some instructors do get caught up in plagiarism scandals, in particular with research they are working on.

However, when such plagiarism happens in an in-person classroom, it is seen as a failing of that teacher, not a failing of in-person education. Virtual education, rightly or wrongly, is held to a higher standard on such issues as stories are not seen as a reflection upon the instructor or the institution, but the practice of virtual education at large.

The NCVPS story is a major failing of the courses involved and, judging from the audit, a significant failing of DPI and NCVPS itself. That is, without a doubt, significant, especially given the size and importance of the NCVPS.

However, to take that significance beyond the institutions involved, something many will be tempted to do, is unfair. Furthermore, to say that the issues can’t be addressed is unreasonable. If plagiarized courses and courses that don’t meet standards don’t condemn in-person education, they can’t condemn virtual education.

After all, these are not problems that are unique to either, they are challenges facing all of education.

Bottom Line

Online education is held to a different standard than in-person education. Much of that is simply because of the relative newness of it and the uncertainties many have around it.

To be clear, online education has challenges and problems, all education does. The NCVPS story does point to some of those problems, even if they are not necessarily ones unique to online education.

While it is perfectly fair to criticize DPI and NCVPS both for their missteps and for their handling of those missteps, to expand that criticism to online education broadly misses the point of the story.

Mismanagement, plagiarism in course materials and courses that fail to meet standards can happen in any school, online or off. These are issues with education more broadly.

That said, if you are an educator and involved in virtual education (whether by design or by force), it’s important to note that your actions won’t just reflect on you and your school, but on online education as a whole.

It’s not fair, but it is reality.

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