Towards a Culture of Dishonesty?

Dr Ciara O’Farrell, Head of Academic Practice at Trinity College, discusses key issues surrounding academic integrity and plagiarism in higher education, and highlights the importance of reaching a shared understanding of both.

Is Andy Warhol’s iconic painting of a Campbell’s soup can satire, or copying? Is Madonna’s ‘Hollywood’ video a creative homage to French photographer Bourdin, or was she striking someone else’s pose? Many years ago, I attended a teaching & learning conference and I distinctly remember a workshop where Perry Share (IT Sligo) discussed these images, unpacking their relationship to popular culture and framing the notion of plagiarism in intertextuality theory. Fresh from my home discipline of English (where T.S. Elliot once noted, ‘immature poets imitate; mature poets steal’) the workshop challenged my pre-conceived perceptions of plagiarism, prompting me to reconsider my attitudes to ghost writing, for example.

In March 2021, Forbes published an article on US giant “Chegg”, currently the most valuable EdTech company in America with stock prices tripling since the pandemic. Indeed, ‘to chegg’ is fast emerging as a verb. Chegg describes its service as ‘connecting college students to test answers on demand.’ Ask an expert a question, the Chegg Study website boasts, and you will have an answer back in ‘as little as 30 minutes.’ However, according to Forbes, who interviewed 52 students who use the Chegg study app, ‘all but 4 admitted they use the site to cheat.’

Cheating is nothing new but there is concern among some academics that the sudden move to open book assessment since Covid-19 may have made it more prevalent. We know from the research that learning achieved through open book assessment is valuable to students and employers alike, and I doubt that many students or academics want to see a lock, stock, and barrel return to the closed book, timed written exams which dominated University assessment until recently. So how can we prevent this?

Of course, students have a responsibility not to cheat but for students transitioning into third level from a world where plagiarism is becoming increasingly normalised, the type of online student ‘training’ many institutions currently have in place only goes so far and is often little more than a tick boxing exercise. Plagiarism policies help but are challenging to implement. Assessors too can mitigate plagiarism, but this necessitates an assessment re-design that requires students to apply their knowledge rather than regurgitate it and to synthesise their ideas with those of others rather than ‘steal’ them. This also requires assessors to shift their perceptions of the purposes of assessment and to view it as something that not only ‘tests’ knowledge but acts as a vehicle for learning.

It is time for third level institutions to hold sincere conversations with students about the ‘why’ of plagiarism and to frame these discussions from historical, ethical, legal, cultural, and pedagogical perspectives. Until we reach a shared understanding with students of what plagiarism is and convince them of the importance of academic integrity, we risk a culture of dishonestly taking hold.

Formative digital assessment

Jonny Johnston, Academic Developer, writes about classroom assessment techniques (‘CATS’) in digital teaching and learning

Higher Education as an endeavour (and as an industry) has spent the last 30 years worshipping at the cult of assessment: is/our assessment practices fit for purpose? What are we assessing? Are we assessing for learning, as learning, assessing to take stock of learning, or assessing to certify learning and award degrees? Why do we do assessment the way we do, and how do we see it changing? And, topically – where does digital fit into the debate?

When we talk about digital transformation in assessment, quite often we put the focus on high-stakes summative assessment practices and focus on the shift towards open-book cultures or on the potential privacy invasions of remote proctoring. Our use of classroom assessment techniques (often referred to as assessment-for-learning strategies) is often what gives as a sense of whether or not students have tuned in or just turned up – and whether they’re engaged or not.

In a face to face environment like a lecture hall or seminar room, we can judge from students’ expressions whether or not they’re with us – and break up teaching activity with think-pair-share activities, solo minute papers, group discussions, and a whole raft of collaborative activities. We change our delivery, repeat and clarify, highlight concepts based on how students are responding. Shifting these activities into the digital space isn’t always straightforward – particularly if we’re not aware of just how often we do these in real time when we’re teaching in person.

Some of the things we do in person can work better online: particularly for large group teaching. VLE tools and videoconferencing apps like Zoom can support anonymous annotation on shared slidedecks, encouraging learners to ask questions at low-risk to themselves. Structured engagement in breakout rooms can be used to replicate the ‘talk with the people on either side of you to discuss as a think-pair-share’ – and asking students to report back their ‘group’ answers is lower stakes for a learner than sharing their individual answer in front of 300 peers.

Polling tools are quick and easy to set up on the fly and can be used in almost any situation to give you a sense of where your students are. Wordclouds generated in response to ‘muddiest point’ or ‘minute paper’ style prompts (using tools like TurningPoint or Menti) can be used for responsive plenary activities and let you really quickly and easily see what students have taken away from the session – or haven’t, as the case may be! ‘Post-it’ style ideation, brainstorming, and ‘card-sort’ activities on virtual pegboards can be done with tools like Flinga or Padlet and can be used by groups or individuals.

We don’t necessarily think explicitly about formative assessment in action in the digital classroom. I think it’s a major oversight: the vast majority of assessment we do as educators is on-the-hoof and formative, particularly when we’re teaching in live time. Our digital teaching is evolving rapidly. Is our digital assessment evolving to match?