Academic Integrity

In November I was asked to update the Turnitin UK User Group on the progress of the joint Jisc/Turnitin data analytics project.  During the day I also took part in a panel session on academic integrity – with discussions around the fact that cheating, and in particular contract cheating is happening.  Views were expressed on whether or not it could be stopped, for example through better assessment design, better interaction with students, or using detection tools – and I think it is fair to say the general conclusion was that it couldn’t be stopped.

Although this might be a realistic view, it is also quite a pessimistic view. In reflecting on it, my thoughts turned to issues I had as an AV manager in HE.  In their early days data projectors were seen as high value items worth stealing and this led to a spate of thefts from universities. Professional thieves came ’tooled up’ and the damage they caused getting the projector was greater than the replacement cost of the projector. The disruption to teaching was also considerable, making it even more challenging to encourage academics to use classroom technology. The approach I, and many of my colleagues took was prosaic; we accepted that we couldn’t stop the thefts so we developed strategies to minimise theft, with the aim of deterring all but the most determined thieves. As well as making projectors difficult to get at (using cages, alarms, locating them high up), we also made it difficult for them to be passed on (marking, smart water, etc), and of course the consequences of being caught were severe, those being caught receiving criminal records.

So how does this relate to academic integrity?  I believe that a similar multi-faceted approach is useful. By making it difficult to cheat in the first place; assessment design, invigilation, assessment location, can all help.  We can make detection more likely using a range of tools and data analysis techniques. And when cheaters are caught, we make the consequences severe, losing degrees or even getting a criminal record. In doing so we can accept that we can’t eradicate the most determined but at the same time send a very clear message that cheating is not acceptable. 

However, these approaches deal with the symptoms not the cause. How much do students really understand what academic integrity is? In an increasingly digital and online educational world prevention is not enough, we need to help our students understand the reasons why we need to maintain academic integrity, and in doing so reject cheating.


General Election

With the UK election done and dusted I’ve been thinking about what the implications might be for UK HE. There will definitely be some impact on immigration, and the THE writes that there may be a change of emphasis towards vocational HE provision.  Could this take the form of increased online, open, and time shifted education?  If so this will be an interesting challenge for some universities, even those who already have some online provision.  In my experience of developing online provision in the HE sector, moving beyond the basics of a few courses requires institutional change across academic departments and professional services, and can throw up totally unexpected challenges in the least expected places.


Will outlawing essay mills make plagiarism detection defunct?

The Times Higher this week (9-15 Aug 2018) has an interesting article about the Irish government passing legislation to make essay mills illegal and suggests that countries in the UK should think about following suit.

Although the article acknowledges that off-shore mills may well continue, it makes some very good points about the impact of legislation on the conversations universities might have with their students – moving from a ‘you shouldn’t’ to an ‘it is illegal and criminal’ dialogue.  It should also stop the blatant on-campus advertising that we see today for these mills, and may also stop people writing for the mills.

A natural conclusion may be that such legislation could remove the need for plagiarism detectors, very welcome at a time when budgets are severely stretched.  However, I would argue that it makes such tools not only more necessary, but would require them to become more sophisticated.

Submissions originating from high quality essay mills are by their nature difficult to detect as they can be original work meaning that standard originality checkers won’t pick them up.  If students know that there are no tools to detect output from higher quality essay mills, then the temptation will still be there.

So making essay mills illegal may actually increase the demand for tools to identify such cheating.