Academic Impressions is one of my main sources of news on e-learning and educational developments. The editor, Daniel Fusch occasionally does interviews with experts on issues that come up in the news. Yesterday, he published an interview with me on teaching academic honesty in the classroom.

I often am asked, after giving a keynote on e-learning, about the prevalence of cheating in online courses, as if it doesn’t happen in face-to-face programs. If you read the Academic Impressions article, you will see that it doesn’t refer specifically to online courses. Certainly, technology makes cutting and pasting much easier than laboriously copying out other people’s writing by hand, but then technology gives us Turn-It-In, which acts as a check.

In over 15 years of teaching online, I can remember only one instance when I was forced to use institutional procedures to deal with online cheating, and in this case, it was as a result of one student making a formal complaint about another using plagiarized material. This became a complex issue, with the student accused of plagiarizing turning out to be a faculty member in another institution who happened to be taking the course as a student.

And it has happened to me. I was asked to review an article for a journal and after deciding I really liked what the author was saying, it gradually dawned on me that he was quoting word for word from a report I had written several years earlier (which shows how objective I am in reviewing). The whole article, except for an introductory and concluding paragraph, had been lifted without any acknowledgement. I was mad as hell, especially as the author was a tenured faculty member. So I have had far more trouble with academic dishonesty from faculty than from students.

Now was I just lucky, over-lenient or was I doing something right in my courses? I have always seen ‘academic honesty’ issues such as plagiarism, using other people’s work, or getting help from someone else for assignments, as something that needs discussion and a common understanding between teacher and students. The Academic Impressions article started as an interview about cultural differences resulting from a decision by a US college to discontinue a program in China due to the high incidence of cheating among the program’s students. However, I believe that while some students in some countries do not always follow the same academic honesty standards that we tend to take for granted as ‘Western’ academics, the issue is far broader than just cultural issues. I have always therefore tried to build into my online teaching, as part of the skills and competencies to be learned, the development in students of the academic rules regarding using other people’s materials. This means making expectations clear and explicit in terms of the actual study of a particular course, not as a set of abstract rules buried in the institutional policies and procedures manual. If you want to know how I try to integrate good habits about academic honesty and standards in my online courses, take a look at the article in Academic Impressions.

When you get down to it, all study involves using somebody else’s work. Academics do it all the time. And yes, we should acknowledge direct contributions of other people in our own writing. But have you read those horrible articles where virtually every sentence, however mundane or unexceptional, is accompanied by a list of references? This is not academic honesty but trying to support often an unsubstantiated thought by reference to someone else who has had a similar unsubstantiated thought that the author agrees with.

Academic honesty, like many other things in life, is not black and white. There are clearly sometimes egregious breaches in student (and academic) conduct, but most of the time it’s more laziness or ignorance. (When I confronted the academic who used my work, he apologised profusely and said that he ‘forgot’ where it came from, which means he must have a photographic memory for the actual report, as it was word for word, but not for the name of the author of the report.) I believe you have to go out of your way to teach appropriate academic behaviour by embedding it in the day-to-day studying of a course. In other words, it needs to become a habit or automatic, as far as possible. Even then, the most experienced and conscientious academics can make mistakes.

However, what is never directly punished, but even more annoying than copying, is when people use your work to argue the opposite of what you intended, to which the only response is a rebuttal. The problem is, this often happens in the ‘closed’ world of a classroom, not in the ‘open’ world of a blog, so you don’t know it’s going on.

I had a wonderful example of this. I had just emigrated to Canada to take a new job, and the second day I was at work, a colleague called and asked me to take her place as a speaker at a conference, as the topic was one I was very familiar with, so I agreed. I arrived in time to catch the middle to end of the previous session. I slid in to the back, and after a few moments, to my horror, I heard the speaker, an academic from another local university, quoting me and my research to justify the argument that distance education, and in particular the use of television for teaching, was an example of the industrialization of teaching leading to the alienation of students. He was quoting me completely out of context, so at the end of the session, when he asked if there were any questions, I put up my hand. ‘Excuse me, ‘ I said, ‘but I don’t think you have interpreted Tony Bates’ research in the way he would. Indeed, he would use it to argue the opposite.’ ‘Oh, really. Would you mind identifying yourself?’ ‘With pleasure.’ It is rare that one gets the chance to do this in a face-to-face context!

See also:

Berret, D. (2010) Cheating and the Generational Divide, Inside Higher Education, November 17

Dante, E. (2010) The shadow scholar Chronicle of Higher Education, November 12, a highly entertaining and shocking article by someone who makes a good living writing assignments for students.



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