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Infinite Monkey’s


There is a saying that I know of along the lines that given enough time then a group monkeys could type out the complete works of Shakespeare, such as en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infinite_monkey_theorem. This then lead to a thought on if it actually happened then would it be a copyright infringement? Probably not given the time that has transpired, but then consider if instead of it being a random act, then what if the monkeys had just copied the text by learning how to use the keys Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V effectively? Then how could we tell the difference? With that thought in mind, then how can assessors of work on an online eLearning platform then detect plagiarism?


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A little history

Before my current situation, a software engineer, I was a teacher (ages 11 – 18) and before that a software engineer, so I’ve gone back and forth to software development. And so, I’m a bit of a hybrid, anyway, when I was teaching, a couple of my students decided that they would take one of my instructional worksheets, alter it slightly, put their own names on the top and hand it in as their own work, hoping that I wouldn’t spot this. Being the person I am, I initially looked at the work and thought ‘this is good’ before after far too long (I was tired) realising what they had done! The work felt ‘familiar’ and had a style to it, my style. And that’s the point, beneath the surface of the work is the style of the creator, that tell tale pattern with small little nuances that tell you that a piece of work belongs and has been created by a given person and not copied from another. If you read and look at my code (bar the code I’ve copied and credited) then you’ll see I have a style there too.

How hard is it to spot copied work?

As a human, we gain knowledge and understanding over time not only of what we as a species has created, but also our nature. We can pick up on the subtle nuances that lead us to investigate if work is fake. Just like I was able to in my example. But what about remote learning, where we lose some of the information that assists us with the task of spotting forgeries? Such as body language? In that case, then you need to turn to a ‘Plagiarism detection’ (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Content_similarity_detection) program, i.e. ‘Comparison of anti-plagiarism software’ (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_anti-plagiarism_software). Of course, that actually can be the first step. We can still use our intuition and indeed as time progresses, understand the style of the student even if they’re remote and we’ve not met them.

But then that poses the question of ‘why’, why cheat in the first place?

Why cheat anyway?

Why do we cheat? Money / financial gain? Hide our inability to do something we claim to do? Some other reward? Perhaps one or more of those things. But ultimately, in theory, we should get found out, especially when it comes to learned skills that are the whole point of education in the context of getting a job or position. The ‘qualification’ is just a starting point from which to then improve and better those skills when you put them into practice. If you’ve cheated, then you should be quickly found out as you can’t actually do the job you claim to do. Then the real loss is with yourself, and you’ve not actually won. You’re the person whom stands to lose the most by cheating.

What about Open Source?

To narrow things down a little to ‘Open Source’ (opensource.com/resources/what-open-source) software and ‘Software Engineering’ (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Software_engineering), specifically the ‘Software Construction’ (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Software_construction) element, whereby the code is written, initially tested and debugged.

With Open Source code under the GPLv3 license (www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-3.0.en.html), which Moodle (moodle.org) has its code licensed under, you can ‘you can redistribute it and/or modify it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by the Free Software Foundation, either version 3 of the License, or (at your option) any later version’. And so the only ‘copyright’ is the one that prevents you applying a copyright to ‘prevent’ copying of the work. Therefore, if I see a solution to a problem that I am trying to solve, then I’m free to copy and adapt that work to my particular problem. So is this cheating? If its for work then no*, if its for an assignment for a course you are doing so, then probably unless you reference and explain what you’ve done and why, i.e. you are demonstrating your understanding. With work and ‘no’, then its still best to reference where the original work came from, and double check the actual license, and indeed check with your boss too!

But… on the flip side, if you don’t have the skills to understand what somebody else has written, then how do you really know what it does and will solve your problem without any side effects? Therefore when learning the skills in the first place, there is actually no point in cheating.

A copy paste keyboard

Aside but related, I own a mechanical keyboard (as I do a lot of typing!) and one day I stumbled upon an image of a keypad with only three keys, essentially ‘Ctrl’, ‘C’ and ‘V’ – a ‘copy paste’ keyboard. Doing a bit of research finds that it stemmed from an April fools joke (stackoverflow.blog/tag/the-key), but is now actually real and there are other similar products. The world is truly strange and yet wonderful at the same time.


Yes you can copy and cheat, but if the Monkey’s had copied the complete works of Shakespeare, then would they then have the skills to build upon and improve the work to the extent where they created something new? I doubt it, and that’s the point.

What do you think? Please let me know in the comments.

Gareth Barnard
Latest posts by Gareth Barnard (see all)

Gareth Barnard

Gareth is a developer of numerous Moodle Themes including Essential (the most popular Moodle Theme ever), Foundation, and other plugins such as course formats, including Collapsed Topics.

3 thoughts on “Infinite Monkey’s

  • jane Hiley

    Obviously a monkey couldn’t have written the complete works of Shakespeare because monkeys only live in the present; moreover they are neither motivated nor capable of human character analysis and even if they understood one human being a little they would have real problems generalising and applying their understanding to another unknown human. Which is not to denigrate monkeys. They are extremely good at being monkeys but not very good at spelling…

    • blank ElearningWorld Admin

      In fact this proposition has little to do with spelling. I believe it’s about the concept of “infinity”. Given long enough, and doing nothing but randomly pressing keys, if infinity is real, then at some point a monkey will type the complete works of Shakespeare. In fact, I think an infinite number of monkeys would do this.

  • I never thought about the monkey’s mastering Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V before to do this, lol.


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