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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).

Let's Talk About Academic Integrity: Part III After the Internet and With the Roof Blown Open
August 22, 2012 - 7:34pm

A week or so ago, I decided to write about academic integrity because of the plagiarism reports about MOOCs.  For anyone following the posts, the first was a recounting of my first experience with plagiarism as a teaching assistant 30 years ago.  Yesterday's was a broad stroke report about how technology disrupted the traditional balance between the policy and practice.  Then, yesterday afternoon there is an article about how a journalist on the Yale Board resigns over the issue; according to the news report, the claim concerned one paragraph he published unattributed to the New Yorker.  And now this morning, the ghost writer of some CHE note has unmasked himself with the publication of a book about his experience writing academic papers for hire.  Obviously, this topic touches a sensitive nerve.

Dave Tomar wrote for money, but why he chose to do so is the more interesting story.  He was mad at both the substance and form of higher education.  He admits a disposition towards "rebellion," if you will, intersected with some personal experiences that soured him greatly, including a bureaucratic mistake made by a registrar at his university that was corrected almost immediately.  Is he rationalizing poor choices?  Sure, to some degree, and he recognizes the rationalization for what it is.  Is he over the top?  Yes. If the registrar identified the mistake in the very same conversation (although it sounded more like a shout by his description of his behavior), one could, in another mood, have responded by thinking that the school was conscientious, first by following up on requirements and then in finding and admitting a mistake in judgment about them right away.  But is he onto something to which we should pay some attention?  Absolutely.

For those who are skeptical of for-profit higher education, according to this article, Tomar throws you a bone.  In his view, it is the most rote learning, the least attended to by dynamic faculty, a money mill with limited learning.  But Tomar does not end his criticism there; in fact, he identifies and implies much to be reckoned with at the door of traditional not-for-profit institutions.  Since I have not read the book, I will impute my own interpretation.  Rote, repetitive and dull assignments.  A lack of personal connection between students and professors.   That inadequate connection could explain a lot.  Not to justify the behavior, but to explain, students respond to the lack of personal investment in kind, by not "giving" it in return.  Without knowing the student, the instructor has no way of knowing what is authentic for that individual and is therefore willing to take their assignments on faith.  Learning becomes flat, essentially a vocabulary lesson with some process.  Perhaps not unlike the I.R.S., which factors a certain degree of fraud annually into its budget model, consciously or unconsciously, some faculty may assume a percentage of cheating students is simply a price that the ideals of education have to pay to the reality of existing educational models.  Or passive-aggresive response to their own (poor) compensation?  Or finding themselves trapped at a delicate stage of their career and lives by no-win choices?

Are we the victims of our own success?  In the post World War II era, did the United States proudly declare public education as a virtual right even though it more closely resembled the luxury to be afforded by the spoils of victory?  If the notion of public education for anyone who wanted it was true (enough) for a time to have captured our imagination, is it now an artifact of a limited period and not a model in concert with the existing global economy and current budget cycles?  Many a for-profit corporation have followed a similar trajectory.  They become so successful, so big, that they fail to see the challenges coming, and when they do, react to them defensively.  I grew up in Rochester where and when Kodak was king.  From a distance and for some time now I watched its decline.  It is just one example.  Ask Jim Collins, who has written about this phenomenon with data and expertise I do not have.  But distinctions and differences aside, there is a lesson in the comparison that offers us insight about our own corporations.

Technology accelerates change, but it is not the cause of it.  Many, many factors have brought us to this moment.  Academic integrity is both symptom and disease.  I also believe as an ethic, it holds promise for a better day.  Because this is a blog and not a book, I will leave it to others to lay out all of the factors, leaving me the room to focus on the subjective.  It is the loss of the personal that saddens me.  Nothing about that should surprise anyone who knows me.  When I was still in high school, I took university courses in psychology.  As an undergraduate I studied the humanities.  A doctorate in history.  The law degree was a means to an end of working in higher education administration, but I distilled out a thousand appellate court cases (which is the essence of the case method of instruction) the stories of real people in complicated situations.

At every turn, it was about teachers and administrators as much as it was about ideas.  The nuns and dedicated lay people in elementary and high school.  Russell Peck, Paula Backscheider, Brenda Meehan-Waters, Eugene and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Robert Sproull, Thomas Africa, Barbara Holden-Smith, Steve Shiffrin, Cynthia Farina and Anne Luckingbeal … some of these people are no longer with us, but they live on in my heart.  I came to know some better than others, and while not perfect always -- graduate school was a real trial on that score -- at the end of the day, all of them inspired me.  Something about the relationship with these people made a genuine difference in my life.  And in the process, I hope I have given that same gift to some of the young people whom I have encountered as a teacher.  It is not everyone's desired method of instruction but it was mine because it made learning real to me.  In those circumstances, I could not have gotten away with cheating.  I was such a poor student, really.  I couldn't spell, and could barely write a coherent sentence until I was about done with my dissertation.  (No false modesty here, it's true.  And if technology -- word processing and spell check had not come along, I doubt I would have gotten that graduate degree.)  But the truth is that because it was a personal investment, it never even occurred to me to try.  Isn't that where we want to be on this subject?  Not at the floor of expectations, but soaring with the excitement of learning that lifts a person up to the sky.


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