How one UAE campus is prioritising academic integrity in a post-Covid era

It is not enough to simply implement software to help ‘stop’ cheating, argues Zeenath Reza Khan

November 29, 2022
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To coincide with the launch of Times Higher Education’s Arab University Ranking, we’re publishing a series of comment pieces focusing on the Arab world. Browse the THE Arab University Rankings 2022 results. 

We all know that Covid-19 was disruptive for the education sector, forcing universities to move teaching and learning online.

Many lecturers, students and campuses struggled with the sudden shift because of a lack of infrastructure, limited technical knowledge and capacity to redesign lessons and assessments for online delivery, and even lack of access to the right tech.

For most, the elephant in the room was the feared widespread breach of integrity in completing online assessments, and how students were evading measures to protect said integrity to gain unfair advantage.

Most academics have been quick to blame the digital space, online classes and overdependence on edtech that can push students to sometimes find creative ways to dodge measures. However, edtech has long been in our classrooms, omnipresent since the dot-com era. So where did we go wrong? What made upholding integrity in online classrooms so much more difficult?

The academic world has been grappling with issues of misconduct for decades. Student cheating has been recorded to be as high as 75 per cent in classrooms worldwide, oscillating between the figures based on student self-reporting. Whether it was William Bowers’ study in the 1960s or Donald McCabe, Linda Trevino and Kenneth Butterfield’s in the 1990s, or even the late Tracey Bretag’s more recent string of publications, statistics remain similar.

So then, we might ask, did Covid lead to a different kind of pandemic in our classrooms? Well, a study by Thomas Lancaster and Codrin Cotarlan in 2021 flagged a whopping 200 per cent increase in students accessing answer-providing sites. The following year, Sarah Khan and colleagues reported on students’ claims, pointing out continued cheating by vocalising or using hidden earphones or multiple devices, despite measures being in place. These all point to students using various tech available to circumvent integrity measures.

But if you look closely, from having text-matching software to browser lockers, and online proctoring to learning management platforms, universities have also been heavily supported by the edtech industry. This was not only to innovate and personalise the way we teach, but to help us determine, detect and consequently penalise students who veer away from the path of integrity.

Prior to the pandemic, studies suggested that there were either no real differences between cheating levels offline and online, or in fact that students online were less likely to engage in misconduct than their face-to-face counterparts. So why wasn’t edtech enough in helping us uphold integrity in our virtual classrooms?

During the Covid period, we no longer had the luxury of looking into our students’ eyes when discussing concepts, which meant that there were enough times when we couldn’t decipher whether they understood us or not. It also meant that we were unable to establish a relationship with our students, to build trust and mutual respect.

Often, we take these for granted, but they are crucial to building a culture of integrity in our classrooms. It is in our corridors, cafes, libraries, dorm rooms and, yes, the digital space as an extension where students engage with and adopt integrity values. On a pre-pandemic campus, even though students may have attempted some online assessments, a large portion of their learning journey was being shaped by the physical connections, conversations and practices that they observed. But during the pandemic, this was missing.

Amid conducting virtual help sessions, research, events for teachers and students, and counting essay mill sites targeting students in the United Arab Emirates, several scholars from universities and schools in the country recognised the need to join hands. In doing so, they set up a voluntary research and practitioners’ Centre for Academic Integrity in the UAE, which was hosted at the University of Wollongong in Dubai. With the aim of supporting the community, we organised eight online workshops for 1,147 school students in response to requests from K-12 schools.

For one such workshop of 88 participants, we found that 18 per cent of the students knew a classmate who had helped someone in an exam; 18 per cent received help themselves; 17 per cent had self-plagiarised (attempting to reuse their own work); 17 per cent had engaged in all these behaviours; 8 per cent had plagiarised; and 10 per cent had outside help.

To provide greater support for students, we developed AIVAS (Academic Integrity Values) workshops. Substantial attention was given to training students as ambassadors, and school and university students went on to become champions of integrity on their own campuses and for the larger community.                                        

Campuses that did well in avoiding misconduct during the pandemic had already worked towards developing and fostering cultures of integrity well before the emergency hit. Based on this philosophy, we at the university developed the principles of IEPAR (Inspiration, Education, Pedagogical Consideration, Assessment Design, Response and Restorative Practice) that universities have used and can use to take determined steps to develop a campus of integrity. These include: teachers inspiring their students as role models;  taking focus away from marks, and appreciating effort; raising awareness of the different behaviours that constitute misconduct; rethinking assessments to encourage originality, critical thinking and upholding integrity; making the effort to detect and penalise where necessary; including students as champions and ambassadors and, ultimately, providing opportunities for those who have faltered to find a way back through restorative practice.

Technology has led to an invariable cat-and-mouse game in classrooms – virtual or otherwise. We know that it is not enough to simply implement software to help “stop” cheating. Academic integrity cannot be a byline, afterthought or by-product of a different conversation in board meetings. Instead, to develop and uphold academic integrity, we need to make this a conversation that takes centre stage in all aspects of university life.

We don’t know if we have completely left the pandemic behind. We don’t know how deep the roots of stress, anxiety and lack of learning run in our students even currently, let alone in the future. But it is crucial that we sit up and take heed now, bringing integrity to the forefront of everything we do, so that it becomes a part of the culture of the campus and carries students through all obstacles that may well come their way in the future.

Zeenath Reza Khan is founding president of the Centre for Academic Integrity in the UAE, and programme director and assistant professor at the University of Wollongong in Dubai.


Print headline: Character-building

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