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The evolution of academic integrity approaches and where we stand today

Amanda De Amicis
Amanda De Amicis
Content Writer






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It’s been said that cheating is as old as learning itself, and it’s a pretty accurate analogy. It captures the longevity of students’ desire to cheat, and the evolution of cheating behaviours that reflect the changing nature of education practices. While it’s unrealistic to expect to eliminate cheating altogether, efforts to stop academic misconduct - whether it’s plagiarism, student collusion or outsourcing of work to a third party - must of course be maintained at every turn, to preserve learning outcomes. At Turnitin, it’s our job to stay on top of and indeed anticipate new developments and trends, both in terms of identifying academic integrity risks and helping craft solutions to detect and deter student cheating.

In previous blog articles we’ve canvassed emerging plagiarism trends, new technology that emboldens students to partake in academic dishonesty such as text spinners that attempt to evade similarity checking, and even explored the historical milestones of plagiarism. The digital era and shift to online and hybrid learning has presented perhaps the biggest challenge and opportunity yet for academic integrity. We're contending with more avenues for students to cheat in asynchronous settings, while at the same time, seeing greater focus and visibility of the problem and its scale. So, what’s next in the ongoing quest to instil integrity in students and prevent cheating?

Fresh off the heels of the 2022 International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating, let’s take stock of how far we’ve come and what’s on the horizon for the education sector in upholding academic integrity.

Greater visibility and agility required to respond to academic integrity

The digital era of education has presented significant change in learning and teaching practices, so it stands to reason that student misconduct would also take on new forms. Case in point, the adoption of computers and the internet for online delivery of education expanded the concept of plagiarism from hard copy textbooks, into the more ubiquitous ‘copy and paste’ plagiarism. But rather than viewing technology - particularly in the hands of students - as jeopardising academic integrity, it’s important to focus on how student conduct can be shaped to meet new expectations that take into account the realities of technological progress during their schooling and professional lives.

Contract cheating is another form of misconduct that existed long before the internet - first written about as a commercial enterprise all the way back in 1939. But it took on new life with the advent of eCommerce technology that established an industry of commercialised contract cheating on a scale never before seen. Fortunately, technology has also proved that disruption goes both ways. Institutions have been benefiting from similarity checking software for approximately 20 years, with uptake now standard in many higher education institutions and secondary schools that are committed to preserving a culture of academic integrity and meeting compliance benchmarks. Furthermore, the availability of document metadata through commercial and open source programs has been a game changer in helping detect issues of authorship in student submissions, as it relates to contract cheating suspicions.

Broadening the academic integrity framework

Upholding academic integrity involves so much more than just a static policy handed down and enforced by educators amongst their students. An understanding that academic integrity is everybody’s responsibility should filter through the educational ecosystem to leverage required skills and ensure buy-in. At the same time, it requires a more holistic approach across an institution that responds to the fact that it is resource-heavy in the detection, reporting and investigation of various types of misconduct, draining in terms of emotional labour, and not to mention time-consuming in taking preventative measures that address skill gaps and disincentivise student cheating.

There’s a growing realisation - particularly in the Australia and New Zealand education markets - that dealing with cheating is not the domain of educators alone. It’s why we’re seeing the growth of appointed roles such as academic integrity officers and central academic integrity units, evident in institutions such as University of New South Wales, University of Southern Queensland and Macquarie University, to name a few. For instance, Kane Murdoch from Macquarie University is a firm advocate of the ‘partnership model’ of academic integrity management whereby educators’ pedagogical expertise is paired with the investigative and regulatory skills held by professional services staff.

At the coalface of students’ academic performance and conduct, we hear time and time again that educators yearn for greater support in monitoring academic integrity and reporting breaches when they occur. Building on research led by the late Tracey Bretag and Dr Rowena Harper, Felicity Prentice recently shared her PhD research on educators’ reluctance to report suspected contract cheating due to barriers such as uncertainty and lack of training, or the discomfort of the perceived disruption to the educator-student relationship. It speaks to the need for a dedicated function within an institution to handle what is very multilayered work, empowered by technology to substantiate evidence of student wrongdoing and make the appropriate interventions. Put simply, in the words of academic Cath Ellis’ rallying hashtag, #makeitsomeonesjob.

And beyond the walls of an institution and its internal protocol, it’s encouraging that we are seeing more sector-wide approaches to academic integrity that recognise the scale of the problem. Consider the law prohibiting contract cheating providers from operating in Australia, courtesy of The Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency. Equivalent legislation also exists in Ireland, and the UK has also recently joined the ranks in tackling the issue from a student access standpoint.

Restorative practices of academic integrity and students as partners

Since the very beginning, thwarting academic misconduct has been based on a crime and punishment model in which punitive measures highlight the negative consequences of cheating and discourage students from doing it. While there is certainly merit in making the risks known to students, operating on negative reinforcement alone is hardly the most effective way of making academic integrity stick as a personally held belief that follows them beyond their schooling. Nor does this risk-reward analysis in the mind of a student always go the way we expect. Following a raft of research on the benefits of a positive, values-based approach to academic integrity that is filtering through academic institutions, we are seeing increasing change in how student misconduct is managed and deterred.

The growth of education-based approaches to academic integrity training has been instrumental for student learning opportunities that better address cheating motivations borne from skill gaps and confusion around what counts as cheating. Of course, it is not a silver-bullet solution for opportunistic cheating and there is still much work to be done so that integrity measures can be truly rehabilitative and deter academic dishonesty in a way that resonates with students. UNSW’s ‘Courageous Conversations’ initiative is one example of a step in the right direction, which investigates suspected contract cheating by first allowing students an opportunity for honest dialogue, and in the case of wrongdoing, seek redemption before exposure to a misconduct hearing. By incentivising honesty, it aims to change the student trajectory from one of repeat misconduct, and can also be seen to minimise and indeed repair harm in disciplinary action that can affect a student’ s relationship to others and learning itself.

Pursuing this idea of student experience further, and in a fascinating presentation from the recent 2022 Australian Academic Integrity Network Forum, Canadian academic integrity expert Sarah Elaine Eaton, PhD, explored the trends for academic integrity in the 2020s and beyond. Among these identified trends was the concept of restorative resolutions to academic integrity to promote student ethicality and citizenship as opposed to mere compliance, and the joint concept of students as partners. The key takeaway? Academic integrity cannot thrive as a purely top-down approach by institutions and if we are to turn a corner with student cheating, student engagement and cooperation is vital; particularly as education adopts online and hybrid learning models and teaches students the skills of self-paced and asynchronous learning.

Involving students’ own voices in the development of integrity measures so as to take ownership of their learning, is picking up speed, but still very much in its infancy at many institutions across the Asia Pacific. It’s inspiring then to see ICAI’s (International Centre for Academic Integrity) efforts over the past few years as part of International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating, to make students’ voices heard and position them as part of the solution.

Impact of artificial intelligence on academic integrity

Having canvassed the strides made in education thus far to thwart academic misconduct and champion integrity and original thinking amongst students, we turn now to a new frontier in academic integrity - artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence presents implications in a number of areas of education, but perhaps none more so than in student assessment output.

Are you aware of the neural language generators that are already producing human-like text and aim to be virtually indistinguishable from human-produced content? Powered by datasets with hundreds of billions of words, a human only has to input some basic parameters - a brief, if you will - and voila, the technology will churn out a comprehensive passage of text. Of course, how well this technology anticipates the needs of the reader is still being ironed out. No longer the domain of science fiction, these tools, namely GPT-3, have been a game-changer in making AI writing outputs more realistic or authentic, not to mention accessible. And there’s already talk about the release of the next iteration of the technology - GPT-4, billed for ‘large volume content creation’. Although pitched to industry, it’s not difficult to foresee the demand in education for the purposes of assignment writing.

Deakin University academic Lucinda McKnight’s exploration of AI writing has helped raise awareness in Australia and prompted our own Integrity Matters chat that posed the question: can institutions change their thinking and assessment fast enough that they won't get outflanked by the inexorable rise of AI writing? According to Lucinda, students are already using it, and poses the question: “how do we make this high stakes assessment fair when students are going to be potentially having all sorts of capabilities augmented by what AI can do… we have to prepare students for that future of going out and writing in the world.”

Where to next with AI

There’s no doubt that this technology signals a paradigm shift for education and our expectations of academic integrity. It’s even led Turnitin’s own James Thorley, Regional Vice President, APAC, to pen a written piece on LinkedIn ‘Anticipating the impact of AI-based writing on education and assessment’. In it, he identifies the challenge in adapting our tightly-held notions of writing: “Authorship is intrinsic to the values of authenticity and legitimacy we hold dear in academic and professional settings. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the prospect of written ideas being detached from a human author whom we can credit, is perceived as a collective threat.”

However, he goes on to suggest that by reframing our approach - particularly from the perspective of cognitive offloading where students guide AI output - we can open up new possibilities for student knowledge and achievement. Choosing to either resist the inevitable by banning AI’ s use, or alternatively, embrace it along with guidelines, is certainly not the first (or last) fork in the road for education. Just look at the initial fear around potential student misuse of calculators and how they have since been folded into daily practice and the fair assessment of students.

We’ve come a long way already and there is undoubtedly more to come in the evolution of academic integrity and student cheating. As for Turnitin’s response to AI, our AI paraphrasing detection technology is near complete. We're now inviting customers to work with us on our product's user experience, to ensure we're surfacing and reporting on paraphrased matches in a way that facilitates interpretation for instructors and helps them make informed decisions. Furthermore, we’re committed to partnering with institutions and educators to support them in redefining what originality and integrity means in an AI world.

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