My 7 Takeaways from the 2019 ICAI International Conference

This past weekend the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) held its annual international conference right across the river from me in New Orleans. I was fortunate enough not just to attend, but to participate in/give two separate talks at it.

All in all, the conference was two and a half days some of the best minds in academic integrity coming to talk about plagiarism, contract cheating, honor codes, building an atmosphere of academic integrity and anything else related to the topic.

With the conference over, I have around 20 pages of notes, tons of people to reach out to and a lot to think about. While there will definitely be a slew of posts on this site that stem from the conference, I wanted to first talk about some of my broader takeaways and lessons from the conference.

Because, while it’s hard to pull away some general thoughts from such a variety of great work but, both in the presentations and the conversations that surrounded them, there were definitely some themes that seemed to bear repeating.

To that end, here are seven key takeaways that I, personally, got from the 2019 ICAI Conference.

1: Contract Cheating is Bigger and Better Organized Than Most Realize

Essay Mill Spam

Much of the conference focused on the topic of contract cheating and that included a great talk by Thomas Lancaster, where he highlighted not just how big contract cheating has become, but how advanced the businesses behind it have grown.

While it’s easy to dismiss contract cheating as places to buy low-quality essays at inflated prices (which is still somewhat true), the truth is that the organizations offering essays are more advanced than ever.

This means several things. First, the price of an essay is dropping considerably. Online, an essay often sells for around $30 per 1,000 words, making it practical for most students. Second, these companies are more and more aggressive with their marketing, often targeting students on social media, including in supposedly private groups.

They’ve also expanded into new lines of business, one of the most notable is student blackmail, where they extort more money from their own customers or just from random students.

Still, much of the expansion has involved online learning, which brings us to:

2: The Challenges of Online Learning

UNSW Australa Logo

Though most of the attendees were very excited about the potential for online education, many even working for online-only schools, almost everyone acknowledged that it raises new academic integrity issues.

One of the biggest is student impersonation. This is where a student turns their login credentials over to a third party, often a contract cheating company, so that student can take the class and/or turn in the assignments for them.

Kane Murdoch and David House of the University of New South Wales in Australia did a talk discussing how they use IP addresses and other data to track and catch students who cheat this way.

Part of the problem schools are finding is that the organizations that are putting this service together are, as mentioned above, extremely advanced and can evolve quickly. A technique that catches such students today might not work next school year.

3: The Need for Education to Evolve

University of Alabama Logo

One of the responses to this isn’t just that detection and enforcement needs to improve, but that education itself needs to evolve. Whether it’s about Karen Gardner from the University of Alabama talking about new course structures that get students to work collaboratively on a project or more radical solutions, such as Western Governor’s University, which has completely dedicated assessment team that’s separate from the faculty.

There seems to be an understanding that education needs to evolve though there is a lot of debate and discussion about the direction. Whether it’s a push to ditch the essay as an assignment format, a plan to restructure how grades are given to reduce student fear or simply new remedial plans to help students left behind catch up, there’s a real push to change education in a lot of directions.

4: The Progress in Academic Integrity Research

McMaster University Logo

Just a few years ago the volume of research on plagiarism and other academic integrity issues was thin and, even worse, most of the research that was there didn’t really give us many answers because we couldn’t see trends over time.

That has changed in a MAJOR way in the past 5-10 years. There were many great studies related to academic integrity to be found. For example, Brenda Stoesz from the University of Manitoba and Anastassiya Yudintseva from McMaster University shared research on the effectiveness of plagiarism tutorials.

While the study did show that such tutorials are, in general, relatively effective they were unable to determine what kinds of tutorials work best. Also, their first attempt at their study was foiled by students who literally cheated the assignment on cheating, saying they had completed the required coursework when they had not.

Another study by Valerie Denney and Zachary Dixon from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University used the Turnitin Plagiarism Spectrum to determine what instructors and students alike though about the different kinds of plagiarism. They learned that, in almost every case, students treated the plagiarisms more seriously than the instructors.

But, despite the new wave of research, a lot of it still isn’t broadly useful as findings are often very different from school to school. Though we can get some broad generalizations, things vary enough from school to school that it’s difficult to draw conclusions about a specific place without first directly testing it.

5: The Focus on Instructors

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Logo

One accidental theme that came out of the conference was a renewed focus on the instructors and their role in academic integrity.

This was highlighted nicely by Darrin Nelson, also from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, who conducted a survey of his faculty and found that they rarely submitted academic integrity reports, even when learning of potentially serious infractions.

The reason is that the instructors preferred to handle this in the classroom rather than going through the university’s system. However, that meant that students were able to repeatedly break the rules and receive only slaps on the wrist since there was no centralized tracking. It also indicated to students that the instructor didn’t take the issues seriously and made cheating more likely.

The need to educate instructors and encourage both detection and reporting of academic integrity violations is a crucial one and, at many schools, it’s a key missing piece.

6: Looking for Holistic Solutions

Western Governor's University Logo

Schools are increasingly looking outside the traditional academic integrity process to try and find more holistic solutions to the issue. This includes finding ways to cultivate an atmosphere of academic integrity, redesigning classes to better engage students and using automated tools to make cheating in online courses more difficult.

However, one area that came up multiple times using legal recourses, in particular the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to remove course material from sites like Course Hero.

In one talk Christina Gee and Amy Williams from Western Governor’s University discussed how they were using DMCA takedowns to remove copies of their assignments from all over the web and had both a small team and a custom web crawler on the job. They have successfully removed more than 18,000 URLs from the Web.

In short, the battle for academic integrity is going way beyond just checking for plagiarism and watching for cheating, it’s a fight that’s literally leaving the walls of academia.

7: No End in Sight

Finally, for a conference about academic integrity in 2019 there was very little “the sky is falling” mentality. There was no panic even as the attendees were discussing the difficult, often intractable, challenges that they are facing.

That said, no one had any delusions about this fight being over any time soon. Academic integrity has been a battle since way before the internet and it’s going to be one for as long as we have an education system that involves teaching and assessing students.

Everyone is dug in, but everyone believes that this fight is an important one.

Bottom Line

All in all, the conference was a doozy and has left me with a lot to chew on. I have more than 20 pages of handwritten notes (due to a laptop keyboard in desperate need of replacement) and a lot of people I need to reach out to.

Expect a lot more from this conference over the next weeks and months. In the meantime, these are the key takeaways that I’m seeing right now.