Academic Integrity in 2020

Just one more way 2020 has been challenging...

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Back in July 2019, I wrote a surprisingly well-timed piece about academic integrity in online education.

While no one at the time could have foreseen the COVID-19 pandemic and the chaos it would cause the academic world, there had already been a long-term trend of more and more education moving online and bringing new academic integrity challenges with it.

However, COVID-19 had the effect of speeding up that transition and making it much more urgent. Schools all over the world rushed to shutter in-person learning in the latter part of the spring semester and are now taking a variety of approaches, trying to find the right balance for their particular situation.

Though many schools are opening, many others are resuming online classes. Some schools plan to start in person and transition to online education later in the semester while others are looking to do the reverse.

But regardless of the approach several things have become clear: Distance learning is becoming a more important part of education and that raises academic integrity questions that many schools have not addressed.

To that end, here are just three of the big issues schools are facing when it comes to academic integrity in 2020.

Issue 1: Determining How Serious Is Academic Cheating in Online Classrooms

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When it comes to online education, there is a perception that cheating is both easier and more common. According to one 2019 survey some 60% of all faculty members believe that academic fraud is more common in online education.

The reason for this perception is simple: Cheating is easier in a distance learning environment. Naturally, that will lead to some increase in cheating but the extent of that increase is up for debate.

A big part of the reason for that is the evidence seems split. While one 2007 study found that online education did result in a significant increase in cheating, a 2010 survey found that online students were only slightly more likely to have cheated on an assignment, an increase of 32.1% to 32.7% (However, they were much less likely to have gotten caught).

This confusion is compounded by the fact that, until recently, the average age of online education students was older than in-person students and multiple studies confirm that older students are less likely to cheat.

Right now, we just don’t have conclusive evidence on how prevalent cheating is among online education students when compared to in person students, especially in an environment where online education is the default for all students.

It seems highly likely a lot of interesting new data will be coming in 2021. In the meantime, schools are left at least somewhat in the dark in this area.

Issue 2: Making Online Cheating More Difficult

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With online education, instructors lose control of the student’s environment. This, at least theoretically, makes it easier for students to cheat on their assignments. Schools, however, have not been sitting idly by and many have been trying to find ways to claw back some of that control.

For some, it’s meant technological solutions such as Proctorio, Examinity, and other online-learning applications. However, these applications often bring with them tech issues, as reported in the linked article, and can also raise privacy concerns in many cases.

Privacy concerns are a significant issue in this space. Since students are taking tests in their home, even the relatively simple act of requiring webcams stokes privacy fears (understandably).

Others have taken a different approach and simply altered the assignments they give. Many classrooms are shying away from multiple choice and short answer quizzes in favor of essays, group projects and other types of assignments that are normally take home.

However, this comes at a cost too. Instructors, already taxed by having to deal with the major changes to how they teach, are also being asked to take on assignments that are more time-intensive to grade.

There are no easy answers here and any lasting solution will be a combination of approaches. That said, it’s difficult to cobble together a nuanced solution while scrambling from a virus. Even with a summer to prepare, there was never enough time or certainty to build a fully-formed strategy.

Issue 3: Helping Students Succeed

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One of the truisms of academic integrity is that struggling students are more likely to cheat. Whether they are struggling due to a lack of confidence or a lack of resources, a student that lacks confidence in their ability to get the grade they want will be more tempted to take shortcuts.

However, COVID-19 has given students a LOT more reasons to struggle. They no longer have access to in-person resources like the school library, student success centers are more limited in what they can provide and it can be significantly more difficult to engage with instructors.

This says nothing about even more fundamental issues. Many students will not have reliable internet access and if they do, they may not have an adequate computer. Other students may not be technically adept enough to jump into online learning while still others may have technical problems that they are unable to overcome.

When students are taking courses in their homes, supporting them often means providing kinds of support that schools haven’t had to do before. This is why libraries are offering “parking lot wifi” and some schools are giving students hotspots so they can use cellular data.

Though lack of connectivity is part of a much bigger problem, it plays to academic integrity too. If a student can’t research a paper or has extremely limited time to do so, cheating becomes an understandable temptation.

Schools can prevent plagiarism and cheating by helping students succeed. Unfortunately, that is more difficult in 2020 than it has ever been.

Bottom Line

2020 is going to go down as a unique and challenging year. That’s just as true for academic integrity as it is with almost any other issue you can think of.

However, with academic integrity, there’s also an opportunity. Online education had been growing in importance for decades, but many schools had been reluctant to address the integrity issues it raised, even as they opened their virtual classroom doors.

Though COVID-19 threw schools into the deep end of the pool, the lessons learned will serve them well in the coming years and decades as online education continues to grow.

As chaotic as 2020 has been and will likely be, there’s real hope that it could help future students have a much more successful and honest online education.

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