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    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Academic Integrity Redux
March 4, 2013 - 12:32pm

Canisius College in Buffalo, New York invited me to speak on the subject of academic integrity last Friday.  Below is my speech in blog-length installments.  It is not the first time I have written about academic integrity -- hence the "redux," -- but it is a topic that current developments, MOOCs not least, and upon which the future of higher education rests.  I hope these thoughts contribute to a conversation that puts the dynamics of academic integrity front and center of our collective efforts going forward.

When my son, Nikko, was 7, and Sam was 3, I frequently took them on excursions around the Finger Lakes looking for lakefront property. Stumbling upon a new development just northeast of where we lived in Ithaca, I became excited that perhaps I had found just the place. The cliffs are high around much of Cayuga Lake, so I expected the slope down to be steep. Even so, I was alarmed as we began to descend the unpaved driveway. I could feel the shale breaking under the weight of the car and quickly surmised, too late to turn back, that it would not support us back up. My mood shifted from ebullient to serious as the car slowly crawled down the cliff and I recalculated the distance to the last house we saw. (It was in the days before cell phones.) After what seemed to be a long, excruciating descent, I finally saw the path curve to the right to a level spot where I could stop. I said nothing as I applied the brakes, high above the water, far from the road, nestled in the wilderness. Sam, my younger boy, broke the silence. “What’s next, genius?”

From the mouth of this babe came a remark that to this day draws laughter. After we hiked up the shale driveway and were kindly received by the nearest neighbors who called us a tow truck, I asked Sam where he got that line. Almost disappointed that I would not know, he said “I heard it on a T.V.” True to stereotypes about birth order, my older boy is an ideas man and an academic achiever. Sam is more rebellious: he tests boundaries and is an outstanding mimic. Now at 16 and a junior in high school, he plays varsity sports, loves hip-hop, and uses a music production center (MPC) to sample and remix all kinds of music with beats.
What will Sam’s world be like when he goes to college? As we begin to think about joining innumerable campus tours, I wonder what Sam knows or thinks he knows about the academic world. Moreover, how would he distinguish it – or not – from the market? Will he consider it an inconvenient, instrumental means to the end of a paying job, perhaps even a career that gives his life purpose? Apart from friendships and social networks, will he come away with the sense that he has had a unique experience, that he has made a personal journey to adulthood and gained critical perspective on the world around him?

         I find myself wanting to sit Sam down to talk about academic integrity. Can you imagine a more pedantic topic? What would be my motivation? First, as an academic and an administrator, I am concerned that he stay out of harm’s way.  Let’s face it – and there are contemporary examples all around us -- – academic integrity is virtual landmine for many students. Hand in hand with that observation is the fact that, as a product of his generation, Sam is a digital native. He reads almost nothing in print, prefers to get his news from video, goes to Wikipedia when he starts a research topic, prolifically uses Google, knows cut and paste, and likes to work collaboratively. How do these practices stand up against traditional policies?

         But there’s another reason motivating me, one that has greater value and makes it worth dusting off this topic. In assessing the impact of the Internet on academic integrity, I have come to the conclusion that it lies at the vibrant core of the future of higher education.  That larger concern is the one I will focus on today.


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