user research

JISC Innovating e-Learning Online Conference

Last week I attended the JISC Innovating e-Learning Online Conference and as part of the pre-conference Activity Week, I also gave a Prezi presentation on the Spot the Difference project:

During the conference several attendees have contacted us who are interested in testing and giving feedback on the project’s pilot visual search tool when it is available in early 2012. During the event we also had some interesting questions and discussion about copyright issues and the lack of a digital equivalent of the DACS blanket slide licensing scheme for Higher Education; the difficulty with using Creative Commons images from Flickr because the person who uploaded the images may not always have the right to grant those rights; as well as applications of visual search technology such as the reverse image search engine by Tineye.

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Staff interviews and online survey completed

The project survey has now closed at the end of August after receiving 158 responses from staff across the arts education sector.

The survey included a number of questions about the nature and meaning of the term ’visual plagiarism’ and the issues that it raises.  One-to-one interviews have also been held with 8 members of teaching and academic support staff across a number of specialist arts universities, to explore the topic of visual plagiarism in more detail.

Thank you to everyone who has very generously spared their time and expertise to assist with this research both through participating in the online survey and by speaking to me by phone, Skype, and in person. The findings of this research will be made available later in 2011/12.

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Project survey

We would like to hear your thoughts on the meaning, nature, issues, and extent of visual plagiarism by completing our short online survey at:

The survey aims to collate the experiences and perceptions of both teaching and support staff across the arts education sector. The results of this survey will feed into the Spot the Difference project, and the survey will be open throughout August 2011 and can be filled in anonymously. Please forward this survey on to any colleagues who may be interested in taking part, and we are grateful for your time and assistance in this research.

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Digital image déjà vu

In addition to working on the Spot the Difference project, VADS also provides a growing online searchable collection of over 120,000 digital images of art and design, which are contributed by libraries, museums, and archives across the UK for non-commercial use in learning, teaching, and research.

Recently we’ve had some discussions about how to deal with a few instances where we have received multiple digital images of the same artwork, which have been photographed or scanned as part of different digitisation projects, and then contributed to the VADS image database by different people at different points in time. We looked at why these duplicates exist and whether it would be useful or not if they were hyperlinked or grouped together in some way. (This duplication also got me thinking about the Spot the Difference! project, which I’ll come on to later).

Firstly, here are the reasons why there are a handful of instances of duplication in the VADS database:

1) Multiple editions – some artworks may form part of a series of identical editions held in different collections (such as the screen prints by Tim Mara) or there may be mass produced objects such as posters or sewing patterns held in different locations.

Address your Letters Plainly', poster by Tom Eckersley, c. 1934, from Imperial War Museum

Address your Letters Plainly', poster by Tom Eckersley, c. 1934, from Tom Eckersley Archive, University of the Arts London
‘Address your Letters Plainly’, poster by Tom Eckersley, c. 1934.
Top: poster from the Imperial War Museum.
Bottom: poster from the Tom Eckersley Archive at University of the Arts London.

2) Multiple physical reproductions – as well as digital photographs or scans of an art or design object, there may be scans from analogue reproductions of that object, such as scans from old 35mm slides.

'Our Jungle Fighters Want Socks - Please Knit Now', poster by Abram Games, from Imperial War Museum    'Our Jungle Fighters Want Socks - Please Knit Now', poster by Abram Games, from Design Council Slide Collection
‘Our Jungle Fighters Want Socks – Please Knit Now’, poster by Abram Games.
Left: poster from the Imperial War Museum.
Right: 35mm slide showing the same poster, from the Design Council Slide Collection.

3) Multiple digital images – on a couple of rare occasions, VADS has received two different digital images of the same unique artwork, which have been captured as part of separate digitisation projects.

'Portrait of Carel Weight', painting by Robin Darwin, 1957, from Royal College of Art Collection    'Portrait of Carel Weight', painting by Robin Darwin, 1957, from Royal College of Art Collection
‘Portrait of Carel Weight’, painting by Robin Darwin, 1957.
Left: digital image from the Royal College of Art’s contribution to the Fine Art project.
Right: digital image from the Royal College of Art Collection.

'Flat Packed Rothman's', painting by Stephen Farthing, 1975, from Royal College of Art Collection    'Flat Packed Rothman's', painting by Stephen Farthing, 1975, from Royal College of Art Collection
‘Flat Packed Rothman’s', painting by Stephen Farthing, 1975.
Left: digital image from the Royal College of Art’s contribution to the Fine Art project.
Right: digital image from the Royal College of Art Collection.


This duplication also raises some points that are relevant to the Spot the Difference project’s investigation of visual plagiarism, referencing, and visual search technology:

  • Unintentional variation – the images of the paintings directly above show the level of unintentional variation that is introduced by the photographer even when digitising exactly the same two-dimensional artwork, such as differences in colour and background. Humans can immediately discern and disregard these aspects, but how will such variations affect the search results from a content-based image retrieval system?

  • Loss of context – the proliferation of digital versions online is further exacerbated by the fact that images are sometimes reused on multiple websites, blogs, and microblogs like tumblr. These images may appear without their original description and metadata, making it difficult to accurately attribute these visual sources and to know what their terms of use are.

These sorts of questions and issues have also been raised by art teaching staff this week during the first few interviews that we’ve been conducting for the Spot the Difference project. We’ll be updating the blog with more information about our user research over the coming months.

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Workshop on Turnitin and academic integrity

In June I signed up to attend staff training on Turnitin and academic integrity run by the Learning and Teaching Department at UCA. This was my first experience of using the Turnitin software which is utilised in a number of universities to check written work for text-based plagiarism.

The workshop was really useful for gaining some initial insights into the issues that are faced surrounding text-based plagiarism. This included:

Text-based plagiarism detection software is effective but not perfect

Turnitin compares student work against an extensive index of websites, articles, and previous student papers. It proved easy to use and effective at finding copied text, but as with all technology, there were some foibles to look out for. For example, any text that is given in double quotes will be disregarded, whilst any text in single quotes will be highlighted by the software as plagiarism. The software also doesn’t detect content taken from very recent publications, for example, we found that it couldn’t detect a ‘copied and pasted’ newspaper article that had been published online in the last few days. The workshop leader therefore confirmed that Turnitin is an additional technical aid to assist staff rather than a replacement for human judgement and appraisal.

Balance between formative and punitive

This leads on to another point made by the workshop leader about the potential use of the software as a formative learning tool for students and not simply as a detection tool for staff once students’ work has been submitted. We were shown how students can check draft essays using the software before their work is handed in for marking. We were also introduced to the new academic integrity web pages on the university website which provide information and advice to staff and students on referencing and plagiarism. UCA Library has also developed In-Cite, a series of four online tutorials to explain why, how, and when students should reference sources.

In-Cite online tutorials
In-Cite online tutorials by UCA Library and web design by WildSide Web Design.

Time is of the essence

The issue of staff time and busy teaching schedules was also raised. It was noted that the university’s Study Advisory Service can also provide help and support in this area and offers bookable tutorials for students to develop their research skills and academic writing skills.

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Starting out

Welcome to the Spot the Difference project blog.

We’ll be posting updates on the project’s progress and findings on this blog over the next 12 months, and you can also find out more about the project research and its aims on our about page.

In June we had our first project meeting with Dr John Collomosse from the CVSSP at University of Surrey and Leigh Garrett and myself from VADS to begin planning the project, and have completed the JISC project documentation and have been working on a consortium agreement based on the JISC template with the help of our university legal advisors.

Meanwhile, I’ve also drafted a survey on visual plagiarism which will be circulated to staff across the arts education sector, and have begun to set up interviews with staff from four arts institutions (AUCB, UAL, UCA, and UCF) to explore the subject in more detail.

Research has also begun on the literature surrounding visual plagiarism, and a list of relevant articles, papers, and websites has been compiled on our links page.

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