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Online Homework Help: An Ethical Dilemma

Developed in partnership with: The New York Times Learning Network

Lesson Question:

How can VocabGrabber help students prepare to analyze a New York Times article on the ethical implications of commercial sites that assist students with their homework assignments?

Applicable Grades:

9-12, College

Lesson Overview:

This lesson highlights how one can use the Visual Thesaurus VocabGrabber as a pre-reading tool to prepare students for an analytical reading of a text, in this case — of a New York Times article on the controversial use of commercial homework help Web sites. Students first interpret quotes containing a key, high-frequency word from the text, and then they read the article to analyze those quotes in the greater context of the writer's message. Finally, students synthesize their analysis by composing guidelines for students and teachers to follow in this new age of online homework help.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:

  • interpret quotes in the context of a news article
  • use VocabGrabber and the Visual Thesaurus to define key concepts from the news article
  • compose hypothetical guidelines for students and teachers, based on their analysis of the article

Materials:

Links:

Before the Lesson:

VocabGrabbing a New York Times article:

  • On the white board, use VocabGrabber (www.visualthesaurus.com/vocabgrabber) to "grab" the vocabulary from the New York Times article "Psst! Need the Answer to No.7? Click Here." (You can grab the article's key vocabulary words by simply copying and pasting the text of the article into the VocabGrabber box and clicking the green "Grab Vocabulary" button underneath the text box.)

  • Once you see the VocabGrabber's treatment of the article, click on the enlarged word "homework" in the tag cloud to reveal its word map, definition, and the list of eleven sentences from the article containing "homework."

Warm-up:

Analyzing different perspectives on homework:

  • Organize the class in pairs or groups of three and assign to each set of students one of the eleven "VocabGrabbed" quotes from the Times article containing the word "homework."

  • Explain to students that the quotes they have been assigned to read and interpret are from an article debating the moral integrity of commercial Web sites (such as Cramster and Course Hero) that "help" students with their homework.

  • Have students read their "homework " quote, interpret it, and try to decide how that particular quote could be used to support or to condemn homework help sites such as Cramster or Course Hero.

  • Ask each set of students to read their assigned quote aloud and to explain what perspective each quote conveys on the subject of homework or on the subject of online homework help. For example, "Many professors who return homework won't tell you how you got it wrong — just that it's wrong." would seem to support use of online homework support since students are not getting enough feedback from their professors.

Instruction:

Reading the New York Times article "Psst! Need the Answer to No.7? Click Here":

  • Have students read the article "Psst! Need the Answer to No.7? Click Here," in its entirety, noting as they read how each "homework" quote they previously analyzed appears in context of the complete article.

  • Briefly discuss the content of the article and what they noticed about the homework quotes as they read. Were their assumptions about the quotes supported by the rest of the article? Why or why not?

  • Extend the discussion to include an analysis of the whole article. How are commercial Web sites changing how students do their homework? Why are some professors upset by the advent of such homework help sites? How are some students learning the hard way that abuse of such sites can ultimately hurt their academic performance?

Investigating the use of the words ethicist and ethically in the article:

  • Return to VocabGrabber's treatment of the Times article and point out in the list version of the vocabulary words contained in the article that the words ethicist and ethically both received high relevance scores of "4" even though each of the words only appears once in the article. Explain that this underscores these words' importance to the article.

  • Click on the words ethicist and ethically in the list, displaying the words' definitions and how they were used in context of the article.

  • Click on the small word map of ethicist to activate its full-sized and interactive Visual Thesaurus word map so your students can see that ethicist is derived from the word ethics, meaning "the philosophical study of moral values and rules."

  • Discuss with students why words related to ethics have high relevance to this article and establish that the debate over such sites as Cramster and Course Hero is an ethical one; in other words, the public is trying to decide if use of such sites is morally right or wrong.

Composing guidelines for students and teachers:

  • Have students rejoin their previous partners or group members and work together to complete the following tasks:
  1. A. Discuss: According to a SUNY Buffalo Physics professor in the article, "The students who behave ethically will do well." What does this professor mean? Explain what 'behaving ethically' means in the context of the article.

    B. From an ethicist's point of view, write a list of guidelines for students to follow to ensure that they do not unethically take advantage of online homework-help sites.

  2. A. Discuss: According to an Associate Dean at Pace University, "Colleges need to rethink practices in light of the Internet Age." What kind of practices do you think colleges need to 'rethink'? How is the Internet Age necessitating changes in academic practices.

    B. From a university administrator's point of view, write a list of safeguards and suggestions that professors could implement that would prevent the unethical abuse of online homework help sites.

Wrap-up:

Sharing guidelines for students and teachers:

  • Ask each set of students to share their guidelines for students and teachers with the class, resulting in a cumulative list on the front board.
  • Once students have shared their own guidelines and suggestions, invite them to visit some homework help sites to read their messages to students and teachers regarding maintaining "academic integrity." For example, students could read Cramster.com's "anti-cheating policy" or Koofers.com's explanation of how they are in keeping with the standards expressed in many universities' honor codes.

  • Hold a brief discussion about how the messages on academic integrity on such sites compare and contrast with their own ideas about how to avoid misuse of homework help sites.

Extending the Lesson:

  • Challenge students to extend their analysis of homework help sites to consider the nature of homework in general. Students could write journal entries or personal essays about their own homework experiences. What do they feel the purpose of homework should be? Can they think of concrete examples of good or effective homework assignments that they have received that served that purpose?

Assessment:

  • Check students' interpretations of the quotations containing the word "homework."

  • Assess students' guidelines or suggestions for students and teachers to see if their lists incorporated or supported ideas found in the Times article.

Education Standards (MCREL):

Language Arts

Standard 7. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

1. Uses reading skills and strategies to understand a variety of informational texts (e.g., textbooks, biographical sketches, letters, diaries, directions, procedures, magazines, essays, primary source historical documents, editorials, news stories, periodicals, catalogs, job-related materials, schedules, speeches, memoranda, public documents, maps)

2. Knows the defining characteristics of a variety of informational texts (e.g., textbooks, biographical sketches, letters, diaries, directions, procedures, magazines, essays, primary source historical documents, editorials, news stories, periodicals, catalogs, job-related materials, schedules, speeches, memoranda, public documents, maps)

3. Summarizes and paraphrases complex, implicit hierarchic structures in informational texts, including the relationships among the concepts and details in those structures

4. Uses a variety of criteria to evaluate the clarity and accuracy of information (e.g., author's bias, use of persuasive strategies, consistency, clarity of purpose, effectiveness of organizational pattern, logic of arguments, reasoning, expertise of author, propaganda techniques, authenticity, appeal to friendly or hostile audience, faulty modes of persuasion)

5. Uses text features and elements to support inferences and generalizations about information (e.g., vocabulary, structure, evidence, expository structure, format, use of language, arguments used)

Thinking and Reasoning

Standard 5.     Applies basic trouble-shooting and problem-solving techniques

Level IV (Grades 9-12)

1. Applies trouble shooting strategies to complex real world situations (e.g., workplace situations, family concerns)
5. Engages in problem finding and framing for personal situations and situations in the community
6. Represents a problem accurately in terms of resources, constraints, and objectives
7. Evaluates the effectiveness of problem-solving techniques
8. Reframes problems when alternative solutions are exhausted
10. Evaluates the feasibility of various solutions to problems; recommends and defends a solution
11. Understands causes and critical issues of problems (e.g., personal, social, ethical considerations)


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