Class is underway at Iowa’s 15 community colleges, and instructors are grappling with the age-old problem of ethics in the classroom. Tim Ahern is a dean at at Southeastern Community College who recently met with other school leaders to talk about a kind of theft that’s happening all too often — plagiarism. Ahern says he doesn’t think people coming to school were taught to look at it very seriously, since he talks with students who ask “What’s wrong? What did I do?” He says they can use other people’s material in their work if they properly document the source, but they don’t understand why they have to do that. Ahern says he can understand why people in the Information Age sometimes don’t understand the rules for what they can pick up and use in their own work. Ahern calls it an “information explosion,” having access to so much material. “It still just gets me, what you can find, what’s out there on the Internet,” he says. “You can just lift it right off and paste it right wherever you want to paste it.” The problem is convincing students that most of it is somebody else’s “intellectual property.” “It’s difficult,” the dean admits. The message is tough to get across to some students and they could face penalties from getting an “F” to failing the whole course, but he says “sometimes they just have to grow up.” Southeastern has campuses in Keokuk and Burlington as well as centers at Mount Pleasant and Fort Madison, and enrollment this fall is close to 4500 students. At a meeting this month, the school’s board of trustees approved a code of academic conduct. The code defines acts like fraud, cheating, plagiarism, forgery, and “facilitating dishonesty,” though he says the one they most often refer to is plagiarism, as it appears to be the most widespread abuse they see. Teachers all give the students written course outlines that include a warning on stealing material for a report or paper. There are also Internet sources that allow instructors to check their students’ work for stolen material and confirm if it’s been plagiarized. Ahern says ultimately, a student could be thrown out of school for stealing the words of another and claiming the work is their own.
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