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  • Law, Policy -- and IT?

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

Academic Integrity Redux, Part IV and Conclusion
March 9, 2013 - 3:26pm

At this juncture I would like to say a few words about MOOCs. First, let’s level set: MOOC is an acronym for Massive Open Online Classroom. While distance education is as old at least as correspondence courses, MOOCs are distinguishable as using Internet technologies to bring free education to students globally. The erstwhile Stanford professor – erstwhile because his “experiment” created such an uproar and opportunity that he has since left Stanford to found his own MOOC company, Udacity, -- who spearheaded this term set off a tipping point for a generation of efforts in what is otherwise known as “distance” or “distributed” education.  In a matter of months, company names such as Coursera, Udacity, EdX have become household names.

 I mention them because they are a hot topic, but also because they have generated grave concerns about academic integrity.  Studies suggest it is a real problem in distance education, especially in a format that is so entirely unregulated.  To address it, some companies have established test sites and proctored exams.  Many are using peer grading as a way to off-set the issue somewhat.  And of course the entire enterprise inches closer to the larger questions of certification, credentialing and monetization of course content.  I am going to leave those specific questions aside, however, for the sake of returning to the main point.  It is this:  If our collective heads are spinning trying to figure out what to do about MOOCs, look to academic integrity for guidance.  

Not just the “policy” but the positive aspects of its significance.  Higher education requires researchers to abide by those rules in order to accomplish the goal of pushing at the boundaries of established knowledge and adding original work to our collective corpus.  We celebrate knowledge for knowledge sake not as a insulated absolute, but because that approach gets us closer to truth.  Other fields take up the cudgel of that research and make it relevant by addressing real questions of global scope and consequence.  Instruction is important not as a pedantic exercise or to see who is the smartest member of the class, but as the conduit of culture and values from one generation to the next.  It is what makes us human in a historical sense.  It infuses meaning for both national and global citizenship.

In a world dominated economically and culturally by the market, the term “academic” has a pejorative ring to it.  It assumes the pedantic.  Boring content delivered in a monotone format.  Ideally, nothing should be further from the truth.  Academia has a very proud history.  It is an institution that more or less in its current form can boast of having survived for a millennia, through major transformations in the economic, social and political worlds around it, different forms of government, World Wars, unthinkable human tragedies such as the Holocaust and extraordinary achievement such as modern medicine and the exploration of outer space.  No institution endures through such change without integrity at its core.  Integrity speaks naturally to consistency of practice and adherence to rules as it does to the integration and wholeness of the enterprise.  It has a spiritual component and is ineluctable even as it is enshrined in policy, rhetoric and practice.

Higher education is challenged by a thousand woes: a lacuna of public policy about its cost and plenty of uninformed criticism over its price; for-profit interlopers; the slings and arrows of disruptive technologies and new business process, reduced public financial support for students, politicians who skewer colleges as their latest scapegoat, threats that MOOCs will be the end of us, even awful acts of suicide among our students and horrific campus violence.  In my lifetime, I have never known higher education to be in such need of a raison d'être.  It is a public good that we seem to have taken for granted.  It follows where it should lead, for example on matters of grave political consequence --  copyright reform is particularly close to my heart, and as producers and consumers of intellectual property as well as educational institutions, I believe we can play a key role in moving that issue forward.  

There is much in a deep understanding of academic integrity that can help us breath new life into higher education.  It reminds us of who we are, and who we want to be going forward in the 21st century.  The Internet and new technologies most certainly have disrupted us, but it is a blessing, not a curse.  We have the opportunity to redefine ourselves based on our core, enduring values, mission and purpose.  It is a time not for disintegration, as Thomas Friedman might have it, but a renaissance of the public good we provide to the nation and to the world.  If MOOCs do anything, it should be to deliver that message, and create truly global education.  That's what's next, genius, and yes, I have had that conversation with my son!


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