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As another academic year gets underway amid continuing uncertainty from COVID-19, it’s clear that the lessons about academic integrity we’ve learned from emergency remote teaching remain top of mind. One of them -- the perception that cheating is more common in online learning than in the traditional classroom -- is of particular importance to us.

Back in July 2020, Inside Higher Ed published an interview with one of us (Rettinger) about the perception that cheating has dramatically increased during the rapid, en masse migration to some version of online learning last spring. The headline of that article was “Just Teach Better.”

In November, as a panel speaker at the 2020 Beyond Multiple Choice convening, the other of us (McConnell) gave essentially the same answer to a question from a participant. This is clearly an oversimplification, and as we reflect back on the lessons of the past 18 months, we propose a more nuanced response: “Why not try designing assignments that promote academic integrity rather than pay top dollar to police your students?”

Let’s be clear: those answers were not flippant ones, and we are not dismissive of faculty concerns regarding academic integrity. In fact, we believe academic misconduct is an existential threat to higher education. If we cannot assure that our students are doing authentic work, then we risk upending our value proposition to both students and society. The value of higher education depends on sending graduates into the world with the skills and knowledge we claim to be teaching and habits that prepare them to tackle the challenges that face our world. Unless we in higher education are able to ensure that the degrees we award actually reflect authentic learning, our place in society is in peril.

Many institutions worldwide address academic integrity using the ostrich method, preferring to keep our collective heads in the sand and respond only when confronted with an egregious incident that can no longer be ignored. We do not discuss principles of academic integrity with our students (or we wait until academic misconduct has occurred to have the discussion). Worse, we teach in ways that invite shortcuts, we fail to model integrity in our own work and we never ask students about their academic integrity behaviors and attitudes.

Around the world, major progress has been made in support of academic integrity. For example, Australia’s TEQSA has changed laws and developed an Academic Integrity Toolkit based on research conducted by scholars there. Similar work is ongoing in the U.K. The U.S. is in danger of losing our competitive advantages in higher education if we do not act to place academic integrity at the heart of our institutional activities.

Although many of these risks are facilitated by new technology, a technological arms race is not a solution. Surveillance software, online writing analysis tools and the like do make cheating harder, but not equally so for all students. These intrusions also serve to exacerbate inequities that students already face. Limited access to technology, a lack of universal accessibility and a simple desire for privacy should not stand between students and higher education. They also do little to help students learn.

Advancing authentic learning will require fundamental changes to our institutions, and that change can begin with manageable steps. Below are five ways we can begin to consider academic integrity not as a bludgeon to punish students but as a set of positive, educationally necessary actions that lead to authentic learning. What can be done to ensure the integrity of our academic systems?

  1. Create policies and practices to address academic misconduct. A centralized institutional approach to academic integrity requires institutionwide policies and mandates universal faculty reporting. The result is consistent, fair and humane adjudication, which transforms academic misconduct from a problem to be solved with top-down punishment to a teachable moment that is aligned with an institution’s educational goals.
  2. Develop a culture of integrity. Institutions with honor codes consistently have less academic misconduct because these codes are associated with robust cultures of integrity. In a robust culture of integrity, faculty and students talk about the importance of authentic scholarship, take active steps to learn appropriate academic behavior and collaborate to make integrity a community value. No honor code is required for these cultural shifts.
  3. Engage in faculty development on teaching techniques that motivate robust student learning while preventing cheating. As faculty, our default position is often to teach and assess how we were taught and assessed -- which leaves a lot of room for collective improvement. There are indeed ways to design assignments that not only prevent cheating, but promote learning -- through assignments that require students not only to answer questions to check knowledge and comprehension but to bump up to the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Integrate techniques that require students to engage in metacognition by including opportunities for them to articulate what they have learned through required reflections upon the process through which they completed the assignment. Use “interactive cover sheets” to engage in a learning dialogue with your students. No one is asking faculty to throw the baby out with the bathwater. These techniques are most often tweaks to existing assignments and would be relatively easy to implement.
  4. Incorporate authentic assessment strategies that actually further learning versus serving as “gotcha” moments that focus on what students do not yet know. Though created originally for program-level assessment, with a few slight tweaks the AAC&U VALUE rubrics can be powerful course-level tools. The rubrics represent the collective ambitions we have for our students’ current and future selves in work and life. But we faculty often forget to account for our expert blind spot when it comes to articulating expectations to our students. Sharing the VALUE rubrics with students can kick-start a conversation about collegiate-level learning, signaling to students that their agency, voice and developing expertise matter.
  5. Know your institution. Using a range of assessment tools, institutions should find out from students and faculty alike what their perceptions of academic integrity are. Use of surveys, focus groups, reports of behavior and policy reviews ensures that your institutional values are reflected in the actions of your constituents and provides an empirical basis for future action.

Academic integrity is not a challenge that institutions need to address in isolation; indeed, it may necessitate broader conversation and interrogation. To that end, next month the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the International Center for Academic Integrity are co-hosting “Renewing the Legitimacy of Learning: A Symposium on Academic Integrity.” Bringing together the voices and experiences of students, faculty and administrators, this virtual symposium will explore ideas for teaching faculty, considerations for campus IT leaders and recommendations for honor system participants.

The symposium complements ICAI’s research efforts, particularly a national benchmarking survey designed to help institutions better understand their culture around academic integrity. The study is based on the groundbreaking research of ICAI founder Donald McCabe, who surveyed over 100,000 students about cheating and their attitudes toward school. This revised version takes into account changes in the academic landscape including the internationalization of higher education, the recent move to remote learning caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of contract cheating on commercial websites.

None of the solutions we propose can be implemented overnight, but none are prohibitively expensive or time-consuming, either. When we return to a new normal after COVID, our commitment to authentic learning requires us to evaluate and change our institutional processes and individual pedagogy to best serve our students.

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