The Great Canadian Education Dumb-Down

When I was in kindergarten, children were considered to be advancing if they learned to recite the alphabet and share their toys. As I progressed through the education system, the standards by which we were evaluated became more rigorous. Graded homework assignments and examinations were the norm. Students who neglected to turn in their assignments or show up for an exam might, in many cases, be given a second chance by their teachers. Regardless, they would be expected to complete the work to earn their grade.

How times have changed! On May 18, Edmonton high school physics teacher Lynden Dorval was suspended from work. The reason? Mr. Dorval’s school board forbids teachers from giving a student a grade of zero, even if the student fails to do the work. Mr. Dorval, with 35 years of experience, refused to comply. According to the letter of suspension Mr. Dorval therefore violated his “Principal’s lawful directives to conform [his] student assessment practices to the required School standard”. As explained by the Principal of Ross Sheppard High School, these practices are informed by “our belief that assessment, grading and reporting are complex processes involving individual efforts on the parts of students, teachers, parents and school administration.” Yes, you read that correctly.

Common sense dictates that putting students, parents, and the school administration on an equal footing with teachers in assessment and grading hardly serves as a recipe for meaningful evaluation of learning outcomes. But like other similarly misguided policies undermining our once laudable education system, this one completely misses the mark. The Edmonton “School standard” fails to promote a basic work ethic and sense of personal responsibility. This might satisfy those students who believe that they are entitled to a passing grade simply by showing up occasionally for class. But in the long run, it does our society a dangerous disservice.

Sadly, the problem is not confined to high schools nor should the Edmonton Public School Board bear all the humiliation. Rather, such issues afflict education at all levels right across the country. In elementary and high schools, overzealous parents might badger the teachers to raise their grades and lower their standards. At the extreme, one diligent elementary school teacher in Montreal faced a lawsuit from parents after she asked a student “to redo a part of his homework that had clearly been written by the mother”. At the post-secondary level, it is more often the students themselves, amply assisted by administrators, who coerce educators in such a manner. At my own university, several colleagues have been threatened by students or their superiors for maintaining fair and consistent grading practices. Professors who refuse to comply have been punished, or have seen the administration simply change their grades unilaterally. We can poke fun at the Edmonton Public School Board, but sometimes, even at McGill, “assessment, grading and reporting… involv[e] individual efforts on the parts of students, teachers, parents and school administration.”

Still worse, evolving policies with respect to academic dishonesty, such as Newfoundland’s “no academic penalty” for cheating are training a generation of students to believe that the most serious consequence for such misconduct is an opportunity for a “do-over”. Again, the problem is more widespread than Newfoundland. Disturbingly, I have witnessed some students at McGill rewarded for plagiarism, with their grades increased after being caught.

Allowing policies on grading and expectations of academic conduct to be dictated by administrators or determined by a minority of under-achieving students, rather than agreed upon by educators, risks debasing the system. The result is a commodification of education in which the students are customers rather than learners. In turn, we are witness to an inversion of the traditional relationship between student and teacher, reflected in part by the growing emphasis on student evaluations of teaching in the university. While there is compelling evidence to suggest that student evaluations may be meaningful measures of teaching effectiveness, there is similar evidence that the use of such evaluations results in a “dumbing down” of the curriculum and encourages grade inflation. Those teachers, like Mr. Dorval, who stick to their principles, are invariably the ones who suffer.

Granted, there are an unfortunate number of students with learning disabilities for whom our education system wisely makes accommodations. However, there is a big difference between accommodating those with legitimate special needs and removing the incentive for students to do their homework and pass their exams. The latter robs many of our students of the necessary training to ensure they can contribute to our society and the nation’s economy. The consequence is that the value of education drops precipitously.

Unless we only care about our graduates learning to share their toys.

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Proposed Changes to MCF Policy

From the December 2 Senate Meeting comes the long-anticipated draft revision to the Code of Conduct for McGill Computing Facilities. Recall, this was supposed to have been brought forward more than a year ago by one of our departing mustelids.

At any rate, the draft document, Responsible Use of McGill Information Technology Resources, is interesting on at least three counts:

1. Despite the principle, articulated in:

2.3. Users have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their use of McGill IT Resources.

5.2. Confidential data shall only be accessed by authorized users. Where a user has authorized access to confidential data, the user shall only access the data as needed for a legitimate purpose.

We have the notwithstanding exceptions:

5.3. Notwithstanding sections 2.3 and 5.2 , access to user data shall be provided in the following cases:

(ii) Where access is required by a University official to investigate potential breaches of University policies or regulations or to protect a member of the University community, where there are reasonable grounds to believe there may be a breach. This includes, but is not restricted to University officials, such as Provost, Vice-Principal (Finance and Administration), Dean of Students, Secretary-General, or Executive Director (Internal Audit).

(emphasis is mine)

This is noteworthy because it codifies an additional “right” nay, responsibility, of the administration to violate privacy beyond that which appears in current guidelines, from Article 9 in the Companion Document to (Code of Conduct) Policy:

Users should further recognize that, as specified in the relevant administrative policies at McGill, authorized McGill personnel have the obligation to take reasonable and appropriate steps to ensure the integrity of MCF and to ensure that this Code is observed.
Users are cautioned that technology used in today’s computers and networks does not provide for complete privacy. For example: during the diagnosis of problems, repair of hardware, software or data, user data may become visible or need to be
accessed by authorized system administrators; system failures may occasionally make otherwise private data accessible to other users; despite reasonable precautions, unauthorized use, from both inside and outside McGill, occasionally occurs.
McGill’s responsibility is limited to taking reasonable actions.

… and this “right” goes beyond the powers allowed to police, who would require “reasonable and probable grounds” that a crime has been committed in order to violate one’s privacy, whether electronic or physical.  At McGill, it appears that having once inadvertently breached regulations concerning nominative information of a plagiarist student, one is henceforth forever “reasonably and probably” assumed to be committing offenses that warrant immediate and secretive breaches of privacy by the administration.

I’m not a privacy nut, but recent actions of the McGill administration give me pause. Apparently, I’m not alone, as the ranks of faculty members who have decided to take some of their ICT services (email, web server, etc.) outside of the boundaries of the Roddick Gates continues to grow, as some object to their Department Chair or Dean having access to their personal correspondence or authority over their personal web pages.

In this regard, some of the controversy surrounding Eric Schmidt’s (Google CEO) recent remarks pertaining to on-line privacy is instructive. In response to Schmidt, the highly respected crypto-security guru Bruce Schneier referred to his May 2006 essay, The Eternal Value of Privacy, in which he noted that

“Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect.”

Certain members of McGill’s administration would have us believe that their responsibility to ensure proper usage of MCF outweighs such concerns, or that whereas professors can’t be trusted with confidential information, e.g., about students who plagiarize their assignments and are rewarded for doing so, the administration acts only with noble intent.

When I spoke recently with CAUT executive director James Turk about these issues, I mentioned that while I objected to the manner in which my Senior Faculty Administrator gained access to my private files without my permission (or knowledge), I wasn’t bothered by his access, per se, to the content, since I had nothing to hide.  Turk countered that the claim “I don’t mind someone invading my privacy when I have nothing to hide” means that you no longer have privacy… period.

Weighing in on the subject, from a speech back in June, EFF Fellow Cory Doctorow notes:

We have an unfortunate tendency to conflate personal and private with secret and we say, “Well, given that this information isn’t a secret, given that it’s known by other people, how can you say that it’s private?” And we can in fact say that there are a lot of things that are [not] in secret that are in private. Every one of us does something private and not secret when we go to the bathroom. Every one of us has parents who did at least one private thing that’s not a secret, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

Perhaps more directly relevant to the issue at hand, the threat is not only to privacy but also to academic freedom. As highlighted in the CAUT Bulletin Vol 56, No 8, the CAUT Warns about Threat to Faculty Custody & Control of their Files:

In a nine-page memo, CAUT executive director James Turk said that academic staff custody and control of their own files and records is a vital underpinning of academic freedom.

The memo, issued to all member associations last month, noted that for that reason, it has been the longstanding practice in Canadian universities that, with limited exceptions, documents and records in academic staff members’ files and offices, whether hard copy or electronic, have been in their custody and control — not in the universities. In some cases, this practice has been codified in university policies.

CAUT considers the exceptions to be restricted to documents an academic staff member received or produced in relation to an administrative function for the university, such as in the capacity of departmental chair, graduate secretary or member of a university/ faculty/departmental committee. Even then, only those records pertaining directly to those administrative functions would be in the university’s custody or control. Email sent to colleagues while chair, but not in the person’s capacity as chair, would not be in the university’s custody or control.

To illustrate what has been the practice, Turk asked colleagues to imagine coming into their offices and finding the dean going through their file cabinet or reading their email. “The typical response,” Turk said, “would rightly be outrage because your files and records are your files and records, not the university’s.”

(emphasis is mine)

Can a senior Faculty Administrator in McGill’s Faculty of Engineering say “Oops!”?

Well, even if he can’t (Ed. he can’t), the proposed new guidelines, above, would legalize his behaviour, on the grounds that he “believes” there may be a breach of University polices or regulations.

By the way, for those Blackberry owners out there on McGill payroll, this article on corporate access to text messages, albeit from the US, is most illuminating.

2. Then there’s this one:

7.5. Domain names that include the McGill wordmark shall not be purchased or registered by individual units or McGill employees without the approval of the Secretary-General.

Gee, I wonder whether that could possibly be referring to something like, hmm… this website? Seriously, not only is the intent behind Article 7.5 absurdly transparent, but its formulation is an affront to the menial level of commonsense intelligence one should expect from a university administrator, especially when their job title deals with computer systems.

What’s next? I’ll offer the following proposed addenda:

Article 7.5b: Any parody of administrative folly or discussion of the implications of proposed policy by individual units or McGill employees shall be prohibited without the approval of the Secretary-General, assuming that the Secretary-General hasn’t been quietly fired… again.

Article 7.5c: The exercise of freedom of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is not permitted on McGill Computing Facilities.

3. Finally, I couldn’t resist poking at this one:

11.2 Any potential breach of this policy shall be reported to the Office of the CIO.

(Again, emphasis is mine.)

Pre-crime, anyone?

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An Interesting Response to Plagiarism

Nathan Yau of Flowing Data took the web-outing approach of exposing a possible plagiarist (who allegedly stole his work) on-line.  The page has since disappeared from Nathan’s site without explanation, but remains accessible via Google cache.  The follow-up comments weighing the merits and dangers of this approach are worthy reading.  As much as I bristle at plagiarism, I nevertheless feel that the accused should be given a chance to explain or defend his actions before his reputation is dragged through the coals.  However, this should not be read as an endorsement of the way McGill deals with such situations!

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More on the Ghostwriting Scandal

The Toronto Star covers updates on the McGill Ghostwriting Scandal here and provides some valuable commentary on “What’s the harm”.  Meanwhile, a reader comment on the Gazette story notes:

I am a MCGILL psychology student and I just saw that Barbara Sherwin’s classes has been canceled for the Fall semester.

No surprise there.

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Exit Mustelid

Provost Anothony Masi announces today,

I write to inform you that [...] McGill’s Chief [Senior Administrative Officer], has decided to leave the University effective 31 December 2009 in order to pursue new opportunities in higher education administration.

Gee, any bets on whether this individual will have completed the promised review of the Code of Conduct, together with the McGill Computing Facilities management guidelines, which were supposed to have been brought forward during the 2008-2009 year?

I guess someone else will have to start snooping through our private email now.

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McGill professor caught in ghostwriting scandal

Today’s Montreal Gazette broke the news of a McGill professor who put her name to a journal article that was largely written by ghostwriters for a pharmaceutical company. The article quotes McGill Provost Anthony Masi’s statement:

“McGill University is committed to the highest standards of honesty and integrity in research and scholarship and takes substantiated allegations of research misconduct very seriously…

“The University has an established process for investigating and dealing with such allegations, will look into this matter and take appropriate action.”

Yes, of course.

The readers’ comments to this article are most interesting, and McGill would do well to take note.  Of particular relevance is the post of August 24, 2009 – 8:02 PM:

I disagree with the people who claim plaigiarism would get you expelled if you were a student. I have yet to see a student get expelled at McGill for plagiarizing.

Whether or not this is correct, I think this speaks volumes to the perception of our academic standards being propagated by recent attitudes of our administration.

And an update… from the comments section of the Gazette:

How McGill handles this case is more relevant to its reputation than the questionable actions of Dr. Sherwin.

How true.

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SFU’s new “FD” grade

British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University has introducing a new grade of FD — meaning failure with dishonesty. Although this would appear to strengthen the hands of those who take offense at cheating for grades, there’s a catch:

Quoting Rob Gordon of SFU’s School of Criminology,

The FD grade will be available to department chairs who feel that a student’s behavior warrants a severe penalty, usually because they are repeat violators…

And therein lies the problem, at least if something similar were brought in at McGill.  Rather than enforcing a consistent policy that is applied fairly to all students, the SFU model leaves each decision in the hands of a department chair.

Even more problematic, at McGill anyway, is that the university would be in violation of its own rules if it committed to print (on a student’s transcript) a “guilty” decision by the Committee on Student Discipline.  In our neck of the woods, nobody apart from said Committee and the (guilty) student is supposed to know whether or not the student was found guilty of cheating.  I know… you can’t make this stuff up.

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CREPUQ’S workshop

After a bit of a summer hiatus, I’m back to blogging about McGill and academic integrity.

Back on July 9, I received an announcement from the Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities (CREPUQ) of their planned workshop on electronic plagiarism, to be held on October 29 at the Université du Québec – Trois-Rivières. I immediately responded that this was a topic of considerable interest and volunteered to give a presentation about the issues I have encountered in this regard, as well as some of the reports I have received from colleagues at other universities.

Not at all surprisingly, my offer was politely declined today, with the official citing as an excuse that the organizers already selected speakers based on “very specific criteria concerning the tools recently used or created in universities”. There may well be an element of truth to this, although the workshop announcement clearly articulates the themes of the workshop as follows:

  • Vous êtes préoccupés par le plagiat électronique à l’université? (“Are you concerned about electronic plagiarism at the university?”)
  • Vous voulez en savoir plus sur les différentes formes qu’il peut prendre? (“Would you like to know more about the different forms it can take?”)
  • Vous désirez connaître ce qui se fait dans les universités québécoises pour le prévenir ou le punir? (“Would you like to know what is being done in Quebec universities to prevent or punish it?”)
  • Vous souhaitez découvrir des initiatives originales mises en place par certaines universités? (“Would you like to learn about new initiatives put in place by certain universities?”)

Not to sound self-aggrandizing, but doesn’t it seem that the individual who built up this website, documented the systemic abuses of academic integrity related to electronic plagiarism, and taken steps to combat it by meeting with student groups and promoting changes to the academic code, would have something to say about these topics of relevance to the audience?

Of course he would. But then, is that what CREPUQ wants? Keep in mind that the President of CREPUQ is, after all, McGill’s current Principal and Vice-Chancellor, and come to think of it, inviting a McGill prof to shine a bright light on the reality of what takes place at her university is probably not the best form of advertising one could put out to an assembly of academics from Quebec universities. Naturally, it would look a lot better for McGill to talk about the tools put in place to help detect plagiarism, rather than what happens when someone is caught. But then, if you don’t administer a fair system for punishing the offenders, what’s the point of the technology?

Numerous politicians are criticized for their folly of surrounding themselves with “yes-men” who don’t dare point out problems from within. CREPUQ, in organizing a workshop intended to address a very important issue but deliberately excluding from the agenda discussion of the actual problem, is very much guilty of the same behaviour.

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More pettiness from our senior administration

On April 22, I received a memo from the [Senior Administrator, Faculty of Engineering], informing me that several of my recent expense reports “do not comply with University procedures applicable to claims for reimbursement”. This administrator, demonstrating exceptional largess (I note, sarcastically, given that I’m the one who brought in the associated research funds to the university), indicated that “we will exceptionally process your reimbursement request on receipt of [my] written assurance that…” and then proceeded to list several stipulations. The letter concluded, in typical pomposity, with “Please ensure that you are familiar with all University financial policies and procedures that are applicable to academic staff and if in doubt, seek assistance from appropriate resource staff.”

Evidently unbeknown to my [Senior Administrator, Faculty of Engineering], I had already concluded a lengthy exchange with various heads of our Accounting and Accounts Payable office last year. This exchange resolved a series of problems associated with the default “regulations” concerning purchases, by granting me permission to put all my research-related expenses on regular expense reports. Of course, our [Senior Administrator, Faculty of Engineering] is a man of action, who treats computer systems staff as his personal police force to intimidate anyone who may dare to stand up to him. Thus, he is unlikely to deign to ask a simple question of a lowly professor before sounding off on his authority.

As those who have been following this site for some time already know, I have little patience for such displays of arrogance, especially after being delayed for over five weeks since initially submitting my expenses for reimbursement. Here’s my reply:

Dear [Senior Administrator, Faculty of Engineering]

What a pleasure it was to receive a formal memorandum from your office that was not associated with threats of disciplinary action. With regard to the content of your note, I’m afraid that despite your best efforts to familiarize yourself with the University’s established polices and procedures, you may have overlooked my communications with our General Accounting and Accounts Payable office on this very matter. The next time you go pilfering through my private correspondence, perhaps you should check my email with [Administrators, General Accounting and Accounts Payable] between February and April of 2008. In brief, notwithstanding the terms of clause P3.5 of the policy on Reimbursement of Expenses, I received explicit permission in early April of last year to continue submitting expense reports for all research-related purchases.

I appreciate that you have been keeping busy with your tireless efforts to send students a clear message that there is zero tolerance for academic integrity offenses (e.g., as documented at As such, I would be happy to save you the trouble in the future by providing you with copies of my email, so that you don’t need to waste your valuable time ordering others to retrieve my files for you in total secrecy.

In the meantime, I provide you my continued assurance that:

  1. All items were received in good order and none have been returned.
  2. I assume responsibility for asserting any claims that may arise under product warranties
  3. I will ensure that any amounts of refund or credit associated with possible returns are credited to the appropriate fund

I trust that you will cease imposing obstacles to my request for reimbursement of these (reference #00283831, 00285634, 00285962) and future expenses. Kindly confirm that this is the case.

As always, with my very best regards.

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