We ignore the administrative load caused by cheating at our peril

The switch online has brought renewed scrutiny of misconduct, but without adequate resources, the real losers are our students, says Amanda White

Amanda White's avatar
12 May 2021
Investigating academic misconduct takes time and resources. The latter are sorely lacking and it is students who bear the brunt of the delays
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The academic integrity space has seen much activity during the pandemic. It has attracted the attention of scholars of everything from digital critical pedagogy and student equity to student mental health, as well as the mainstream media. But amid the feeding frenzy, what there hasn’t been is anywhere near enough mention of the administrative support required when cases of misconduct are reported by educators.

Rundle, Curtis and Clare apply the Swiss cheese model – which essentially argues for multiple layers of protection to help mitigate risks – to academic integrity and discuss the fact that minimising the “hazard” of misconduct and cheating is a complex, multilayered process.

They talk about the need to consider the social and cultural environment in which the student exists, the engineering of systems to prevent and detect misconduct, education of students, and enforcement of breaches to institutional standards. It’s emphasised that the education of students about academic integrity is critical. We cannot assume that they understand what academic integrity means from their previous studies (or lack thereof) or even what it means within the context of their current course or the country in which they are studying.

There has been significant discussion about the systems used in education to prevent and detect misconduct, including the value of Turnitin, and whether it is assisting students to better understand academic writing and referencing, as well as the use of online proctoring in exams.

Cheating and misconduct have become mainstream news, with major outlets around the world reporting on the rise in cases across higher education. This increase could be due to more opportunities to cheat through online assessments, the greater desperation of students juggling studies with other responsibilities during Covid and/or the increased application of systems and tools to detect academic misconduct.

Given this reported rise, the component of the Swiss cheese model that hasn’t received enough attention is enforcement – not the systems used to detect misconduct, but the administrative processes that come after a breach is detected. Accompanying the greater number of reported cases is increased administrative work related to those cases. Such work can include further investigations, preparing communications to students and attending hearings for cases and appeals.

A key impact of Covid-19, besides moving teaching online, has been the staff cuts across the sector, with tens of thousands of job losses expected in Australia alone. This, of course, means fewer staff available both academic and professional to support university processes in handling breaches of academic integrity.

What is the impact on students?

Well, many more students are likely to be flagged for misconduct in online proctored exams, for a variety of reasons, increasing anxiety both during exam sittings and after the exam as any potential misconduct is investigated. With lower staff numbers but higher workloads, delays in such investigations are inevitable.

Besides the mental health impact of increased anxiety, the delay in investigating a potential breach of academic integrity or processing a confirmed breach is likely to have knock-on effects. I’ve had students reach out to me on social media reporting waits of more than six months for a hearing or decision on a penalty for their case.

Students may not be able to enrol in further subjects or courses and may be required to delay graduation while waiting for a case to be processed. If the student is being investigated during their final semester, they may not be technically enrolled while awaiting the outcome, therefore potentially not meeting the requirements of their student visa.

Where a student has knowingly engaged in misconduct, some might say that experiencing delays and increased mental stress “serves them right”, but if our processes are supposed to help students learn from their experiences, what are long delays creating besides resentment towards the institution? And what about when the investigation or hearing finds no misconduct occurred? What harm have these students experienced while left in limbo?

To support higher rates of academic misconduct proceedings, we must ensure that policies, processes and funding are in place to resolve these cases in a timely fashion. Let’s be clear: adequate staffing of the units handling misconduct cases is urgently required.

What happens if we don’t support this adequately?

As an educator, I know that asking students to wait long periods for outcomes is taking a toll on my mental health. I’ve had to become a pseudo counsellor as students explain its impact on their lives.

From the students’ perspective, the consequences are widely varied, all detrimental. I have also observed an effect on students’ current studies – the cloud of an outstanding case hanging over a student’s head can prevent them from performing at their best. There are also the increased levels of anxiety and mental distress that are a given when there is uncertainty regarding an outcome. All I can hope is that we support students and staff now so that these and other consequences are not allowed to become an ingrained part of the student experience.

Amanda White is an education-focused academic at the University of Technology Sydney’s business school. Her interests are in team-based learning, collaborative learning spaces and academic integrity.

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