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Academic Integrity: An Equitable Path Forward

Barely a week goes by without some new report on academic misconduct (or alleged misconduct) appearing in the national media. Many educators suspect that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the normalization of academic dishonesty, as many institutions weren’t equipped to support students or detect their behavior in new digital environments.

College students, many of whom are learning online (perhaps for the first time) and face looming deadlines, are clearly under tremendous pressure. They are often lured by aggressive marketing practices and promises of quick fixes. The popularity of services like Chegg, which provides answers to questions in “less than 30 minutes,” has created a multibillion-dollar industry and even coined a new verb, “chegging.”

These new forms of academic misconduct accelerate inequities in higher education, creating a system in which only some students can afford high fees for services like Chegg, giving them an unfair advantage compared to peers who might struggle to put food on the table. Solving these challenges requires a multifaceted focus on behavior, detection, deterrence, and instructional support.  

Western Governors University (WGU), a competency-based online university, has designed a learner-focused system for educating students about academic integrity, assessing authentic student work, and providing holistic support that alleviates the need for “chegging.”

Educate Learners about Academic Integrity

Many students do not fully understand the importance of representing their own work honestly and providing credit to others when applicable. It’s not always clear when collaboration is appropriate or individual work is expected. Competing messages about reusing previous work can be conflicting. To add to students’ confusion, behaviors like teamwork and building off prior work are often valued in the workplace and other nonacademic environments.

The university’s learner-centered approach begins and ends with education about the purpose, importance, and mechanics of academic integrity. During enrollment, orientation, and every course thereafter, students are informed about expectations for original work and the need for citations when using the work of others. Before each assessment, students sign a statement attesting to their commitment to use their own work and protect the security of the assessment. When faculty, staff, students, or a third-party tool identify an instance of academic misconduct, a centralized team consistently applies standards and consequences, educating students on the behavior and the need to protect the value of their degree. Some learners need additional counseling on how to ethically use educational resources (paid or nonpaid).

Develop Meaningful, Authentic Assessments

The monetization of academic misconduct is accelerated by the ways that faculty assess their students. Chegg can make money off their solutions because many course assessments require concrete tasks or specific information (e.g., “solve for x,” “calculate y,” or “define z”). At WGU, the use of more open pedagogies and authentic assessments, which require the application of acquired knowledge and skills to real-world situations and future careers, can prevent students from turning to paid solutions online. Learners eager to prepare for their careers also have more incentive to obtain the skills needed to demonstrate competency.

Base Assessments on Students’ Individual Performance

Many institutions hold students to standards that are determined by the learning and performance of their peers. As misconduct becomes more prevalent, this incentivizes students to approach it more defensively—if their peers are doing it, they must do the same in order to compete. At WGU, scoring based on descriptive rubrics and psychometrically defined competencies allows students to demonstrate their level of proficiency independent of others. The fact that there is no comparison between students removes the “everyone is doing it” rationale for misconduct. Students also have multiple attempts to demonstrate competency, allowing them to learn where they have a skills gap and address it. This approach lessens the pressure of a single assessment, allows learners to develop persistence, and shifts their mindset to a personalized approach to improvement and achievement. 

Provide Timely, Responsive Student Support

Students need help at 11 p.m. and 11 a.m. Providing resources whenever learners need them reduces the temptation to pursue alternative sources of help. Students at WGU set their own schedules. The online curriculum is available 24/7, and regular interactions with faculty are available and encouraged. Students even decide when they are ready to take a proctored assessment—whether they want to wait another day or log on within the next half hour. Written or video assignments are always scored, and feedback is provided, within seventy-two hours, ensuring students understand their next steps toward developing and demonstrating competency.

Embrace Open Educational Resources

Open educational resources (OER)—free and adaptable materials, developed by academic experts and often peer-reviewed by publishers—vastly expand the support and supplementary materials available to students. While WGU provides learning resources to students, students are also welcome to use other sources of help. Guiding them to sources that adhere to academic integrity standards is important. 

Authentic OER assessments for specific learning outcomes can help faculty easily transition from standardized assessments, while curated problem sets can provide students with more practice. Openly licensed videos can supplement faculty instruction by guiding students through completing an assignment. OER producers and institutions can also work closely with groups that provide 24/7 tutoring support for students (e.g., schoolhouse.world, Tutor Matching Service) while adhering to proven academic integrity practices. The rapidly expanding OER market can compete effectively with sites like Chegg by providing faster, on-demand support at much lower cost to students. 

Become an Integrity Champion

Defining and maintaining academic integrity standards has always been a challenge. The recent monetization of academic misconduct is just the latest in a long line of escalations. Educators seeking to become integrity champions for their students can get involved with organizations like the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) and Consortium for Online Integrity, which connect educators with like-minded peers to identify solutions. These organizations also offer valuable resources, including ICAI’s top ten ways to improve academic integrity.

Now and in the future, educators will be more effective at identifying and reducing academic misconduct if all stakeholders, including students, join together to set and maintain integrity standards.

David Harris is editor-in-chief of OpenStax, and Maureen O’Brien is vice president of evaluation operations of Western Governors University.

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