Preventing student cheating will require more than AI or legislation

Universities can cut plagiarism by working with students’ unions to raise awareness of contract cheating and the value of academic integrity, says Aaron Yaverski

August 8, 2021
Test answers written on the palm of a hand
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It may feel counterproductive for an education technology company to argue that tech and AI have their limits to preventing cheating.

But as anyone who has spent much of the past year on video calls will know, even the most cutting-edge digital tools can’t replace the power of real, human-to-human conversation.

Universities are hubs for dialogue and discussion. The exchange of ideas, healthy debate and critical thinking have defined the higher education experience since the formation of the very first universities over a thousand years ago. Even in 2021, despite AI becoming more sophisticated and educators being more comfortable than ever with technology-driven learning, what students still value most is one-to-one contact with teaching staff.

As recently explored, the impact of AI on education is undeniable. The automation and technology choices our sector makes today are likely to determine the lives of students, academics and researchers for generations to come. This is particularly the case when it comes to one of the major challenges of the contemporary learning environment – upholding academic integrity.

In this post-pandemic world, there is greater awareness of the need to take action on essay mills, including at the legislative level. Former universities minister Chris Skidmore and Liberal Democrat peer Lord Storey have been vocal on the need for legislation to outlaw these essay mills and their targeted advertising tactics. We – along with the National Union of Students, Jisc and numerous academics from across the country – have been working with Skidmore to bring this issue to the fore, supporting decisive political action against contract cheating services.

The growth of commercial contract cheating services and essay mills is in part a symptom of our digital age, but technology has also helped to tackle misconduct itself, with the majority of institutions implementing edtech into their integrity frameworks.

These AI innovations can help to identify where potential misconduct, such as plagiarism and contract cheating, may have taken place.

However, the battle for academic integrity will not be won by technology or legislation alone. Open dialogue between students, academics and administrators is critical in ensuring a shared understanding of what constitutes cheating. Without this, AI and technology risk being seen as punitive measures, rather than supportive ones.

From student grumbles around “the plagiarism police” to a lack of clarity among teaching staff on how to investigate suspected misconduct cases, it is clear that putting technology in place is only one step in upholding academic integrity. A critical step of course, but human conversation must come first.

Institutions such as Loughborough University have already found great success in building mutual trust and understanding between staff and students. It has introduced a new academic integrity module, working alongside its students’ union to hold direct conversations with students about what constitutes academic misconduct, and the importance and value of academic integrity at an individual and institutional level.

Through partnering with the students’ union via on-campus and online student-oriented campaigns – including targeted social media content via Facebook posts – focused on the definition and consequences of misconduct, Loughborough has seen a fall in cases.

Clear penalty frameworks and clarity on the meaning of misconduct meant that students became more aware of the implications, and were therefore less likely to commit contract cheating.

As Loughborough’s students’ union advice lead Kit Messinger put it: “Partnering with the students’ union may not be the first thing to come to mind for some institutions, but this was a natural fit with our shared commitment to producing ethical and empowered scholars.”

AI and technology are changing our world at a phenomenal pace, making today’s lecture halls and classrooms unrecognisable to the students and educators of only a few years ago. AI accelerates the ability of universities to quickly identify and tackle potential misconduct. But without real, human conversations around what exactly constitutes misconduct, and why academic integrity is so important, contract cheating will only continue to rise.

We must look past our screens and clever algorithms and find mutual understanding on misconduct. Without these conversations, we risk driving a wedge between students and institutions, potentially even creating an environment where students feel disengaged and disempowered in their learning, and therefore unlikely to even use the sophisticated tools put in place to support them.

Technology has revolutionised higher education over the past 20 years, providing invaluable support in the quest to ensure original authorship and upholding institutional reputations. But without human contact, without the conversations that explain exactly why these technologies are in place, we could lose sight of the student and academic collaboration that defines the university experience.

Aaron Yaverski is Turnitin’s regional vice-president for Europe, Middle East and Africa.

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“When students cheat on exams it's because our school system values grades more than students value learning.” ― Neil deGrasse Tyson