Saturday, September 13, 2008

Instructional Design: Two questions

This post is written by Sandipan Ray. Sandipan is an e-learning professional with more than 7 years of industry experience, in almost all disciplines from Graphics, Quality, programming to ID. Presently working in a product development company for their internal training needs.

I am little bothered with two common words:


Instructional Design, as I understand, is make sure that the learner is listening to what I am saying, and the way to that is to keep the course simple. But I am just wondering, with the ever-increasing complexities involved in creating a course, are we really achieving that target of "simplicity"? Is it time for us to become little "lean"?


Ever since I joined this field, I had been hearing about the sin called plagiarism. But till date, I haven't come across a clear definition about it. Wiki says: "Plagiarism is the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one's own original work." Well- close imitation of the language and thoughts-- isn't that very subjective (how much is close enough)? And in the field of learning, can we be really sure about who the original author is? And if a thing works in a X way, or has X attributes, no matter whatever language and in whatever way we say it, the fact remains the same. So, I wonder, can we really avoid plagiarism?

Waiting for you all to throw some light!


Christy Tucker on January 8, 2010 at 1:12 PM said...

Submitted on 2008/09/13 at 5:32pm

As far as plagiarism, I know I tend to be stricter in what I will accept from SMEs than others. What I was taught in high school was that if you have 3-5 words in a row from a source, that’s too much. You have to really paraphrase it in your own words, and you have to cite it.

The citation is a big part of avoiding plagiarism. You don’t have to know who the original author of a thought is, but you do need to cite the sources you specifically used.

Plagiarism doesn’t apply when you’re talking about common knowledge facts–stuff lots of people know or that you can find in a hundred sources. I don’t think it applies when you talk about the steps to perform something in software either. It’s sort of like a recipe. In the US, copyright law doesn’t cover the list of ingredients for a recipe. What it does cover is your directions on what to do with those ingredients–your instructions on how to bring them together. It’s not that anyone has original rights to “File > Print,” but you can’t copy and paste two sentences explaining printing from another source.

I’ve caught a number of SMEs plagiarizing. It’s generally pretty blatant–they copy entire paragraphs or even entire web pages and submit it as their own work without citations. That’s the stuff that’s really problematic. If you are using other people’s work without paraphrasing it or adding anything of your own, that’s a problem.

As far as “how much is close enough,” different people and different organizations have different standards. If you cite the sources you yourself use, you should be safe in most situations.

The OWL at Purdue has a nice guide on plagiarism if you’re looking for more specific tips on avoiding plagiarism.

Anamika Biswas on January 8, 2010 at 1:35 PM said...

Submitted on 2008/09/13 at 10:43pm

For both these concepts, here is what I have learned and experienced:

Simplicity: “It is easy to create complex concepts, but difficult to create Simple Ones”- Javed Akhter, the poet & lyricist.

Plagiarism:I agree with Christy that providing citations is essential while using somebody else’s work. Secondly,giving fresh interpretations may also help.

Sathya said...

Submitted on 2008/09/14 at 11:43pm

Simplicity - is for the content presented and not in the way you create content. To keep the course you have achieve a balance whereby all the learning styles are considered - to accodomate all learners making the course simple. To acheive this you have use all the complex technology to create the course.

Though you want to achieve simplicity in both but difficult given all that needs to be achieved.

Ken Allen on January 8, 2010 at 1:36 PM said...

Submitted on 2008/09/15 at 2:25pm

The Plagiarist
An optimist a pessimist and a plagiarist
Sat round to chew the fat one winter’s night.
The optimist spoke first upon the subject,
And posited quite clearly she was right.
The pessimist spoke next with poisoned tongue,
That his opinion wasn’t worth a song,
And summarised the issue with a sneer,
That far from being right, he was quite wrong.
At last the plagiarist began to speak,
By imitating what was heard that night,
And reproduced to others what they’d said,
That “if you think you’re wrong you’re maybe right”.

Ken Allen on January 8, 2010 at 1:37 PM said...

Submitted on 2008/09/16 at 8:39am

Kia ora Manish!

In a more serious note, the quote ’standing on the shoulders of giants would suggest that something like copying, if not actually denigrated, was at least recognised as being possible. The history of its repeated use from the 12 century (no less) also tends to suggest that copying of sorts was looked on as an inevitable thing that also had its uses.

But it also suggests that ‘building on’ was certainly more acceptable than bare-faced copying, which, of course, is more aligned with plagiarism. It’s all a matter of degrees.

Scenario 1
Let’s say that you, Manish, the great blogger, alluded to some original idea that you had by writing a vague post on it. Ken Allan sneaks a peek at your post and thinks, “I see what Manish is getting at here - but I can develop that and write a post on it”. So Ken copies your words carefully into a text file, changes around a thing or two and adds some bits of his own to flesh out the idea with some explicit examples, and publishes his post under quite a different title - not mentioning anything about Manish or his post.

Shortly afterwards, the accolades start pouring in and Ken gets all the credit of being some great new blogger. You would be quite right to feel at least some annoyance. You might even want to put a comment on Ken’s post that says, “Hey! That’s my idea!”, and you’d be quite within your rights to shout plagiarism.

Scenario 2
On the other hand, Ken, being the great blogger that he obviously is may have decided to give full credit to Manish at the beginning of his post, albeit a modified copy of Manish’s original.
Things start to look a little different.

Ken gets accolades alright. But perhaps different ones from the accolades that Manish may also get through disclosure, as it were, and recognition through the effectiveness of Ken’s post. Manish would be likely to get accolades for thinking up the idea in the first place, and Ken might even get some accolades for recognising its worth and application. Both these skills are praiseworthy, don’t you agree?

The outcomes could be quite different in each scenario, both legally and collaboratively.
But what is the real difference? It is that in scenario 2, Ken clearly is NOT claiming the idea as his own, whereas this was quite his intention in scenario 1.

I’m not sure how this can be simply applied to plagiarism in Instructional Design, but you may be able to see some parallelisms.

Ka kite

Sandipan said...

Submitted on 2008/09/16 at 11:46am

Thanks for your responses.

Christy points out “I don’t think it applies when you talk about the steps to perform something in software either” and “if you have 3-5 words in a row from a source, that’s too much”

Ken says “‘building on’ was certainly more acceptable than bare-faced copying, which, of course, is more aligned with plagiarism. It’s all a matter of degrees.” And then gives two beautiful examples of how citing the source is a win-win for all.

What seems to emerge from the above points is that citing the source is an effective way to avoid plagiarism. “verbatim copy-paste” is a no-no, but paraphrasing helps, though what degree of chnage is enough, varies from organization to organization!

However, is “citing the souce” enough to avoid plagiarism? I thought prior permission from the original author is a necessity.

Then I come across some interesting statements in

“Note that trivial changes in copied text, in an attempt to avoid copyright infringement, are specifically prohibited by law in the USA”: Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp., 45 F.2d 119, 121 (2d Cir. 1930) (”It is of course essential to any protection of literary property … that the right cannot be limited literally to the text, else a plagiarist would escape by immaterial variations.”);


The fair use statute, 17 USC §107, says:
In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include –
1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Is the above definition of fair use little subjective?

And my doubts rest exactly there: how do we draw the line between “trivial changes” and “paraphrasing enough to avoid plagiarism”?

You might appreciate my concerns considering the fact that my domain of work has been primarily into technical, and to large extent, specifically, “software” courses, where we deal with specific and established facts. And honestly, many a times we make trivial changes so that the text read different from the original text.

Anyways, thanks for your comments, and looking forward to more comments on this.

Ken Allen on January 8, 2010 at 1:37 PM said...

Submitted on 2008/09/17 at 11:17am

Kia ora tatou!

I’m not so sure that there is a need to reinvent a way of saying things, even if we are talking about trying to avoid (literary) plagiarism. After all, words are words.Even strings of words in commonly accepted usage will be repeated by many different writers, with no intention of copying whatsoever. Idioms, in particular, are repeatedad nauseam, whether we like it or not :-) and any attempt to paraphrase would lose meaning, if not impact.

The pride and possibly the reputation of the writer in crafting original prose will be at stake, of course. This has to be considered when assessing the literary worth of any text. But it should not detract from the usefulness or appropriateness of text used in conjunction or alongside other design material. They are often simply labels, after all.

Sometimes I have found it pointless to reshuffle or paraphrase the words and sentences of the writing of others when I cite their work. So I couch what I have to say about it in such a manner that it is appropriate to quote directly, when required, with quotation marks so that there is no doubt what I am doing. This dispels any fear of muddying the meaning or of plagiarism. I’m not aiming for a Nobel Prize for Literature.

Ka kite

Sandipan said...

Submitted on 2008/09/17 at 2:17pm

Kia ora Ken!

I agree totally with you!

Thanks Manish, for this eCUBE initiative! This has given us a platform to interact with and know the views of experts from different geographies.

Sandeep Padhi said...

Submitted on 2008/09/19 at 4:24pm

I see lot of emphasis being given to citing the source from where you pick information/ideas to avoid plagiarism. While I do agree that it helps, I was wondering that whether in this process, we give credibility to that information/idea and the source knowingly or unknowingly. If you want to give your support/credibility, no problems; but the problem is when you don’t want to be associated with that idea/information or that source. There are many a times when you just pick some information to “inspire” you but you don’t want to rephrase a lot as it might be changing its meaning. Then come the real questions: Should I cite the source? Was the information correct? What was the basis for some of the facts cited in that source….You need answers of these questions because knowingly or unknowingly you are giving crediblity to that source. I recall using the definition of “teacher” from the Internet (”wikipedia” to be precise) in my last blog, but I did not mention it because I did not want to market the web site as I don’t believe in all the content that’s published on this site. I just believed in that definition and used it. I am looking forward to have Ken’s and Sandipan’s view on this…

Sandeep Padhi said...

Submitted on 2008/09/19 at 5:03pm

I see a lot of emphasis being given to citing the source to avoid plagiarism. Though, I agree with it in principle, there are many questions that come in my mind When I want to cite the source, for example, am I giving credibility to the information/idea I am getting “inspired” from; am I giving credibility to the source and therefore all other content published there, which I may or may not agree with; what was the basis for the facts cited in the source; and so on…I recall using a definition of “teacher” in my last blog on Ecube which I cited to be from Internet but did not mention the site (wikipedia, to be precise) and the reason for this was that I did not want to market or support all the content published in wikipedia. Looking forward to have Ken’s and Sandipan’s views on it…

And I would like to second Sandipan’s opinion that citing the source and rephrasing does not help in avoiding plagiarism in technical courseware. One, rephrasing the technical content often changes meaning, and second, citing the source doesn’t help because there are commercial interests involved. If you do, you might just be digging your own graveyard..

I really wished someone could help me write help for Microsoft technologies without the risk of being tagged as plagiarist:)…you can never rephrase “Select Print from File menu” or the procedure to print.

Christy Tucker on January 8, 2010 at 1:39 PM said...

Submitted on 2008/09/20 at 7:34pm

Sandipan, when you talk about copyright law, that’s a separate question from plagiarism. Plagiarism is about ethics and integrity; copyright is about what’s legal. Sometimes the two intersect, but those are very different standards.
Since you cited US copyright law, I’m just going to talk about that. Fair use is deliberately written to be subjective. You have to weigh all the factors and see whether you have more factors weighing in favor of fair use or more weighing against them. The University of Minnesota’s Fair Use Analysis Tool is a good resource for weighing those factors.

One rule of thumb is that you can use 10% or less of a source when you’re quoting it. You should still cite that source to avoid plagiarizing, but short excerpts usually fall under fair use. The bit about trivial changes from the court case cited above is for cases where someone is trying to copy an entire work or large portions of it and attempting to get around copyright by making trivial changes.

Sandeep, I hate to say this, but you could be fired in the US for copying something from a source and not citing it, at least in academic circles. I don’t care whether you like the source or not–I would personally fire you for using Wikipedia and not citing it. I have fired people in the past for similar plagiarism. When it’s been professors working as SMEs who did the plagiarizing, they not only lost their SME jobs but their teaching positions as well. No excuse about “I don’t agree with everything in the source” would have saved any of their jobs. I’m sorry to be so harsh, but that’s the truth of it. It isn’t about copyright (although I think not citing Wikipedia probably violated the GFDL), but about ethics. Claiming someone else’s ideas as your own isn’t ethical.

So what can you do to avoid both plagiarizing and violating copyright?
* Use multiple different sources so you don’t rely too heavily on any single one.
* When you use another source, cite it.
* Reword ideas into your own language. If you don’t reword language substantially, use a direct quotation.
* Be especially careful of unique or unusual phrases. If you Google a phrase and only find 1 location for it (or even a handful), you need to use the phrase as a quote or significantly reword it.
* Phrases, ideas, or facts used by hundreds of sources can be considered common knowledge and don’t need to be cited or reworded. “Select Print from the File menu” has 120,000 hits on Google right now–you don’t have to cite or reword that.

Sandipan said...

Submitted on 2008/09/21 at 12:52am

Hi Christy,

Thanks for continuing with this post; we are having quite insightful discussions on this.

Well, to be honest, I am not conversant with the US legal system, so thanks for providing some real helpful info. Actually, you mentioned about the US copyright law in your very first response; so I concluded that the Copyright law would be the governing law in case of plagiarism. And then did some Google search to find out what the Copyright law says vis-à-vis content copying. Till now I had known that Plagiarism is legally punishable offence. Now I am clear from your response that it is in fact a question of ethics and integrity.

I think all this confusion arises (if we are honest, most of us would admit that there is confusion) because we are trying to judge two very different entities- literary work and training materials — with the same yardstick of plagiarism.

A literary work (story, article, research, whatsoever) is clearly supposed to be an original work– an expression of the writer’s own opinion and ideas.

However, a training material is rarely an original work–training is always based on something that exist (software, a behavioral problem, etc) and training actually tries to make that existing content/knowledge delivered in a more effective way. There would always be numerous sources of information for any training created, unless the training is for the internal needs of an organization, and on something that again is internal for that organization.

Therefore, I don’t think the interpretation of plagiarism applies equally to training materials as well as literary work.

I agree with your suggestion that whenever we use some unique definitions (like the one Sandeep used) verbatim, we should cite the source. However, such cases are few, and in most cases, we work with commonly known facts. Are our work is to convey those facts to the learner in a better way, and not to create a new literary work.

Some of your suggestions might not work well for creating training materials, because:

• Rewording would not help in majority of cases, because most of the sentences would be common known facts, like “Select Print from the File menu”.
• If we try to find whether what we are writing is commonly available in the Internet or not, the whole DLC would go haywire. Managers might disagree, but that’s a hard truth. In today’s shoe-string budgets, we simply can’t afford that time.

All these discussions remind me of an incident. Once I was required to create some “hangman” sort of game-based interactivity. And on doing a Google, I found it is quite popular method of interactivity, and there are number of sources offering a free demo as well as the source code for the same, albeit with some trivial changes! Is that a plagiarism? I don’t know, for I am still not sure what is plagiarism and what is not!!!!

Finally, the link you provided is quite interesting and helpful. Thanks!

Christy Tucker on January 8, 2010 at 1:40 PM said...

Submitted on 2008/09/21 at 8:05am

Sandipan, note that I said “Reword IDEAS” in my suggestions. There’s a difference between ideas and common knowledge. Even with software training, you have ideas from various sources–the importance of a particular feature, why you should use one tool rather than another, etc. Those ideas are original to a source. “File > Print” isn’t an idea, it’s a fact or common knowledge. If all you do for training is directions, without any context for why someone would follow those directions, you probably don’t need to ever worry about plagiarizing. I assumed you provide context and at least sometimes have full paragraphs; it doesn’t sound like that’s the case for what you do.

I have no idea what the DLC is, so I can’t comment on that. But I know in my company and with previous jobs that I have done manual plagiarism checks for every SME I have worked with, so I know it’s certainly possible to do manual Google searches and still make a profit. However, I don’t check every phrase of every bit of content. I tend to check a lot when a SME first starts writing to make sure they’re doing OK, then less as the course is developed. Usually I get to know a SME’s writing style pretty well, so when they copy from some other source it doesn’t sound right anymore–what they plagiarize doesn’t sound like them. You just get a feel for it after a while.

When you create content, are you writing it yourself from researching other sources? Are you working with SMEs? Are you simply working through the software yourself and recording the steps?

If you’re researching other sources, you know what the original sounds like because you have it in front of you. If you’re not sure whether you’ve paraphrased enough, you can Google a phrase yourself and see whether it seems like a common knowledge phrase or not.

If you work with a SME, you need to check what that SME gives you to see whether he or she plagiarized.

If you’re writing content based on playing with software and figuring out the steps yourself, without using any other sources as references, you are never going to have an issue with plagiarizing. Plagiarizing is about using other sources–if you aren’t doing that, you’re fine.

The type of interaction you use would never be plagiarizing. You could potentially have a copyright or trademark violation, but not a plagiarism issue. However, you could plagiarize a paragraph explaining the rules of a game–that would be the only place it could be a problem.

Ken Allen on January 8, 2010 at 1:41 PM said...

Submitted on 2008/09/21 at 8:27am

Kia ora Sandeep!

If I don’t agree with what is contained in a paper, I would not only not give the source, I wouldn’t even hint about the ideas contained there. This is for the simple reason that there is no way that anything useful could be got by even alluding to it, by my judgement.

But I think I understand what you’re getting at. Am I right in explaining it this way:

Let’s say I read a paper by a fool, and realised there was some sense in what was written. Not only that, there was considerable innovation too, despite the foolishness contained in the rest of the paper.

If that idea was so important to me that I’d want to tell someone about it, why shouldn’t I quote the source? I don’t have to agree with the rest of the foolishness. In fact, I could also openly state that the rest is foolish. I don’t think that this would be giving credit where it was not due.

The thing is that Adolph Hitler was actually a clever man, and very artistic. Isn’t it strange that his opponent, Winston Churchill, was also very artistic. There are many who will not have a good word to say about Churchill. But why should the whole pile of firewood be discarded because a couple of logs are rotten? But society throws away the whole pile when it comes to individual people who have rotten parts.

Sandeep, I would have to make a decision about whether to follow the word of the fool or not, if I did not want to be associated with the fool. If the association was so distasteful to me, I’d be inclined to go and look for something to copy from quite another source :-)

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Manish Mohan on January 8, 2010 at 1:41 PM said...

Submitted on 2008/09/21 at 12:14pm

Okay, I am going to plagiarize what someone mentioned to me. I was hoping to see that remark here by now anyway.

On a lighter note…
If you copy from one source it is plagiarism.
If you copy from many sources, it is research.

Ken Allen on January 8, 2010 at 1:41 PM said...

Submitted on 2008/09/23 at 1:46pm

Kia ora Manish!

What has research got to do with it?

We’re talking about copying here. Not using the accumulated wisdom of others to forward what we can build on. Else why bother doing anything?

Taken to extremes, what you’re saying could be construed as “let’s go back to first principles - with everything”.

That means an artist doesn’t buy paints but makes them from scratch. That an achitect doesn’t use an arch in a plan but invents some other structure. That we all start with a bare section of land and grow our own grain to grind between two stones to make . . . well, the recipe would have to be invented too, lest we be accused of copying.

But, hey, you’ve just made me think of a good line:

If you copy an idea it’s plagiarism -
if you copy several, it’s research.

Ka kite

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