April 2020

When training to become a restorative conference facilitator, an early exercise involves brainstorming and then ranking the reasons that “most people do the right thing most of the time.” In the two years that I have given this training, invariably, “fear of punishment” is mentioned, but it always appears fairly low on the list, whereas “values,” “community,” and “responsibilities tied to relationships,” or a version thereof, consistently appear at the top. In my experience, this insight is partially reflected in most of our institutions’ approaches to academic integrity, in a focus on prevention and education over policing and punishment. But to what extent does prevention and education directly speak to the reasons people do the right thing? And how well are these reasons reflected when things go wrong, that is, in our response to misconduct? In what follows, I’m going to explore these questions and argue that restorative practices can be a powerful contributor to a culture of (academic) integrity over and above one of mere compliance.

What I’ve found striking over the years is how readily students who engaged in academic misconduct frame their wrongdoing in terms of a rule violation and how rarely it is explored as an ethical transgression, that is, as a violation not only of the values we associate with academic integrity, but of those students themselves associate with ethical conduct. This is problematic, since acting with integrity by definition requires an awareness of the ethical dimensions of a given situation and decision. To bridge this gap, a reflection on the concrete harms to relationships and community that academic misconduct involves, as well as on the resulting obligations is required.

Also, how well do our responses to academic misconduct align with our own values and with our institutions’ civic education mandate that is reflected in some form or other in our institutions’ mission and vision statements? Are our discipline procedures geared towards helping students develop an ethical awareness and learn from their mistakes through socio-emotional learning, or do they focus merely on encouraging compliance through deterrence? My experience is that our default responses to academic misconduct, governed by quasi-legal policies and procedures, by far do more of the latter than the former.

At MacEwan University, in Edmonton, Canada, these observations lead to the integration of restorative practices as the default resolution mechanism into its academic misconduct procedure (and now also its non-academic misconduct policy) since July 2018.

Restorative practices1 refer to a social science and set of practices integrating “developments from a variety of disciplines and fields … [that] build healthy communities, increase social capital, decrease crime and antisocial behavior, repair harm and restore relationships” (Wachtel, 2013 as cited in IIRP, n.d.).

The key is to focus on the harms resulting from academic misconduct in a collaborative process that holds students accountable and collaboratively explores how harms can be repaired, as well as what needs to be put in place to avoid misconduct in the future. In a fairly formalized procedure, a trained restorative conference facilitator guides the responding student (responsible party), the faculty member (harmed party), and a student association representative (harmed party), through a set of questions2 that forces students to listen to the impacts of their actions (material, emotional, on the community) and helps them take responsibility.

To be clear, restorative practices by no means replace standard, quasi-legal disciplinary procedures, since they are only effectively applied when a student is willing to truly take responsibility for their actions, but I have found that more often than not they are an appropriate default starting point. Not only do they promote integrity, rather than mere compliance, by creating an awareness in students of the ethical dimensions of academic misconduct, they also are a practical application of the factors that consistently are named as the reasons that people do the right thing most of the time, namely of values within community and responsibilities tied to relationships.

Critically, though, what is restored in a restorative practices resolution, is not only or mainly the “offender,” but more importantly a sense of community and of honesty, trust, responsibility, fairness, respect, and courage.

 

[1] Even though restorative practices have their roots in restorative justice, it is now employed as an umbrella term for a variety of practices, including restorative justice.

[2] International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP). (n.d.). Defining restorative. iirp.edu/defining-restorative/restorative-conference

Many institutions are still grappling with the effects of COVID-19 and the transition to remote learning. While faculty and students find their footing, student conduct practitioners must use this time to develop new proposals for academic integrity policies at their institutions. One beneficial project would be clarifying policies for students and faculty.

Legalese. Institutional policies are riddled with legal jargon that make their policies unintelligible to the average student, staff member, and instructor. The goal of plain language guidelines is to make documents accessible to all readers. While many policies may need to have legalistic language, it can be difficult to navigate the myriad university policies, leading to confusion and policy violations. 

In the United States, the federal government provided guidelines for the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which “...requires that federal agencies use clear government communication that the public can understand and use.” Though not required of collegiate institutions, if a document can be created to simplify the policy for readers, without replacing said policy, it is still a worthy target. Again, this does not mean that a plain language guideline would replace or supersede any policy at an institution, rather it could provide a supplemental guide for all readers to better understand academic integrity policies and processes.

If you are proposing plain language changes to your integrity policies, you may find the following steps, as recommended by the Plain Language Guidelines, a useful roadmap:

    1. Define the Purpose: If you are choosing to re-write your institutional academic integrity policies, be clear that this will take the place of any older policies. Similarly, if you will be using this as a guide to explain an existing academic integrity policy, let the readers know.

 

    1. Organization, or Reorganization: There are elements within the institution’s policy that ought to be reorganized to offer more clarity for students. Instead of flipping back and forth through several pages--or clicking between pages on a website--to explain one step of a process, reorganizing the policy may alleviate some confusion. Further, while the guidelines do recommend having a “definitions” section, organizing the definitions at the end of the document as a glossary may be more useful to those reading your policy.

 

    1. Conversational and Readable: For policies to be digestible by any party, policy language must be as concise and simple as possible. In addition to cutting out unnecessary phrases, abbreviations, or jargon, material should be broken down into bite-sized pieces. Plain language guidelines also recommend using active voice in the present tense. Further, use short sentences and limit the number of sections. Every sentence should be reevaluated to make sure it is intelligible to readers.

 

    1. Work with Key Audiences: Once your language has changed, it is important to check with students and faculty to both test their understanding of the plain language packet and ensure that it is appropriately written to capture the essence of the policy in a digestible manner.



Are your academic integrity policies easy for students to understand? Tell us what you think by commenting below.


While we have been focusing on how and what instructors and student conduct professionals can do to ensure integrity as we transition to online and remote learning, students have been experiencing fear and uncertainty about their courses. This week, the focus is on what students are going through. A student wrote the blog. Here’s what Isaac had to say.

I, like most other students, went into Spring Break for the week of March 9 with nothing more on my mind than enjoying some free time and procrastinating my homework. By the fourth day, my entire reality had completely changed. I’m sure everyone has their own coronavirus story, as not a single person’s life has been left untouched by its effects in the past month. The unique challenge for students has been adapting to the entirely new and unchosen online school environment while simultaneously grappling with the effects of a mounting pandemic.

Challenges to Moving Online

The biggest challenges of the transition to online school have been compounded by the everyday challenges of living through a pandemic, meaning they most likely affect teachers just as much as they do us students. Social distancing and stay at home regulations have led to a sedentary lifestyle that makes it extremely difficult to focus and stay motivated in completing assignments. Simply not having to see your professor’s face on a day to day basis can really decrease the drive to get work done. There is less personal accountability. 

It is worth mentioning as well that for many students, the at home Wi-Fi can be dodgy at best and non-existent at worst, as is the case at my parents’ house. Navigating the maze of the online school format, with its dropboxes, hyperlinks and dropdown menus that never seem to be in the same spot twice, can seem formidable and undesirable for the majority of students. Altogether, the combination of being stuck at home, confusion of the online submission format, and lack of face-to-face instruction does not make for a conducive learning environment. 

The Opportunity to Cheat

For professors concerned with upholding Academic Integrity, the challenges of a transition to online learning can be even more daunting. Especially considering the general difficulties listed above, including faltering accountability and technological difficulties. It is clear that the opportunities for academic dishonesty are even more common in the online format. 

The biggest issue undermining integrity as a result of the online transition is obviously the access to the internet; it has become infinitely easier and infinitely more tempting for students to look up answers for their online assignments with Google available just a click away. Of course, there is always the possibility of this happening in a traditional classroom setting, but it has never been easier than it is now for students to search answers for major assignments such as tests and quizzes. 

I hope that professors will continue to be just as stringent in monitoring Academic Integrity now as they would have been before, but it is likely many may let the Integrity policy fall to the wayside to make things easier for themselves and their students in the midst of a difficult transition. 

What Can We Do?

Is this a hopeless situation? Is the reality of online learning something we’ll just have to bear with until ‘this all blows over’? Certainly, there is nothing we can do on an institutional level to change the format or requirements of online learning until the pandemic is over. But small actions and habits we can choose to make as people working through this together can make this new reality a bit more bearable for all of us. 

Instructors should ensure they are communicating even more than usual with their students. This could mean sharing work phone numbers or setting up additional Zoom meetings, as many of my professors have. Students should be cooperative and patient with assignments and realize that despite the ‘suckiness’ of this situation, we are still paying for our education and should make the most of it. 

Most importantly, however, we should all remain cognizant of the fact that we are all living through an unprecedented pandemic. Everyone’s situation is unique, and you can make no assumptions about how this disease is affecting the life of the person on the other end of the Zoom call. 

By now, it’s already cliché to say that higher education, and the world at large, is facing unprecedented conditions that are sending much of what we do on a day-to-day basis into upheaval.  Academic integrity is especially important to maintain, as ever, with much of our operations going entirely online. This post will go into some of the issues, considerations, and potential solutions to a number of challenges of conducting academic integrity hearings in the online space.  While this is particularly pointed towards the “stay at home” nature of the 2020 pandemic, the below set of questions is meant to be as evergreen as possible for online hearings.

  1. Does your institution allow for policy and procedure changes?  What considerations do you need for a new guideline?

Be sure to look into how your institution creates policy, procedures, and guidelines.  You don’t want to run afoul of breaking an internal rule in policy creation, from which a student could then potentially point to as a reason that overall procedures weren’t followed and therefore the hearing is invalid.  That being said, many systems allow for the addition of internal guidelines that can be adjusted, especially in unusual and emergency circumstances. This likely counts.

In the new procedure, make clear the circumstances in which it is to be used.  Once the pandemic is over, you’ll want to go back to “normal,” however, it wouldn’t hurt to have this ready to go for the future should it be warranted.  Describe in your procedure how online hearing procedures are activated. Consider language such as, “if the institution’s campus’ facilities are unavailable to staff, faculty, and students for use of a hearing beyond fifteen business days, this procedure will come into effect.”

  1. What technological issues do you need to address?

When using online meeting software, it’s important to keep appropriate privacy.  Many recent higher education news outlets have been describing “Zoom Bombing,” where unfriendly folks randomly guess at meeting numbers or get wind of them through various means, who in turn disrupt meetings.  Almost all meeting software allows for the requirement of a password to enter the session. Also consider requiring “waiting room” functionality, where the meeting administrator grants permission to enter the session, and disabling the ability for the meeting to start before the host has logged on.  Be sure to set who can share their screen and who cannot, how muting and unmuting will work, and video settings. Requiring webcams of committee members should be a consideration, as their presence can closely replicate a face-to-face hearing through maintaining attention and the seriousness required.  At the same time, consider keeping the same policy for recordings as you do for face-to-face hearings. If you usually only keep audio, continue to do that here. Many meeting software allows users to save separate video and audio-only recordings, making for simple record keeping.

  1. How do you maintain privacy and confidentiality online?

One of the biggest issues facing an online hearing is documentation and confidentiality.  Students should have the right to view and keep any evidence that may be used for or against them in their hearing.  This also needs to be balanced by their right to confidentiality, and at least in the United States, the Federal Education Right to Privacy Act (FERPA) requires higher education institutions to restrict the sharing of records.  This presents a conundrum, as any share screen functionality in a meeting can lead to a potential breach. Anyone in the meeting can take a screenshot of their screen, and hearing members can also take notes that cannot be retrieved or destroyed.  One potential solution is to use document sharing services that enables you to restrict who can view a file and restricts screenshots, and after the hearing is completed, to then remove the permissions. Of course, this is not foolproof, as it doesn’t prevent someone from simply taking a picture with their phone.

Another option to address the above issue is a confidentiality agreement.  Before a hearing, a form can be provided to members of the committee, denoting how the hearing will take place, to keep an open mind and to be fair in their deliberations, their responsibilities and obligations, and ultimately confidentiality imperatives by not maintaining any records and to not communicate any information they have learned.  A digital signature can suffice, to be returned to the appropriate person through email. This, too, does not completely remove all issues, but can reduce them.

Otherwise, you can pretty well keep the rest of the procedure as-is, through each step in the process as otherwise prescribed.  Any procedures on use of staff members, document retention and protection, and due process is paramount to maintain. Just like in a face-to-face setting, communicate ahead of time to everyone involved how the process will go, what they can expect, and how to use the software that you’re using.  And remember to couch your online hearing under the auspices of, “treat this how you would any other serious endeavor,” including dress and demeanor. It seems to be a good way to go about getting across the gravity of the situation and reducing problems.