June 2021

The first piece I ever wrote for the ICAI Blog was a longish rumination on the impact of the Houston Astros cheating scandal and what universities could learn from how it managed (and mismanaged) it. Only a few years have passed and Major League Baseball, America’s pastime and one of the most successful sports industries in the world, is again dealing with another crisis involving the integrity of the game and how it manages cheating.

What is Happening

For my non-sportsy colleagues: the current scandal involves the practice of a pitcher placing a substance on his hands or the baseball to increase traction when he throws the ball. By doing so, he is able to spin the ball at a much higher rate of rotation as he pitches it.  The increased rotation gives the pitcher maximum control and increases his ability to make the ball “break” before reaching the batter.

If you’ve never seen this happen to a ball, it’s a truly amazing thing to behold. The ball breaks, it moves in unpredictable ways (from the batter’s perspective), it appears to rise when it should be falling. Simply put, it makes the ball move in ways it really shouldn’t. Or, at least, it moves in ways batters haven’t seen before.

The substances being used run the gamut from homemade recipes (usually a mixture of sunscreen and rosin- the material batters use to help them grip the bat safely) to more advanced substances (such as Spider-tack).

These doctored pitches have become nearly unhittable. Sports Illustrated, in a recent article on the issue, lamented that “never in the history of Major League Baseball has it been so hard to hit the ball.” Offense is down, strikeouts are way up. Fans are bored. The sport and its industry are in peril.

Why it Matters

All of this is happening because of cheating.

MLB has rules on substances on baseballs it has never really enforced, and there’s the rub (if you’ll forgive the pun).  There is a long history of semi-sanctioned cheating in this sport. It is a sport often governed by tradition and unwritten rules. That old reality is now clashing with twenty-first century analytics, science, and, frankly, high-definition television. In other words, at the same time that the cheating is getting worse, viewers are becoming more aware of it. At the same time, a problem that existed in a subdued state only a few years ago, exploded this year.

This is where I found the parallels with higher ed, and how we managed cheating pre-pandemic so similar. MLB’s newest cheating problem and how they’ve managed it provide some helpful takeaways for us, if we’re watching closely.

  • Like baseball, universities are sites of tradition and culture. Like baseball, universities are now having to think about what they’ve done (or failed to do) to create a culture of integrity and support behavior that follows their espoused values and governing norms. Having rules on the books is important, but as the last year has shown, universities can’t sanction their way out of this problem. Those of us who have been talking about building cultures of integrity should recognize immediately that this is probably the most receptive academic leaders have ever been to efforts to build a university-wide culture of integrity. Never let a good crisis go to waste, goes the old saying.
  • Problems poorly addressed in the past can become crises today. Simply put, the conditions coalesced to bring us the cheating crisis destroying baseball today. It wasn’t just the use of foreign substances. It was foreign substances + a lighter baseball + institutionalized analytics in each ballclub enabling and enhancing the behavior + batters coming off a pandemic-shortened season. The same can be said for last year’s rise in rampant cheating. Behavior that we struggled to contain pre-pandemic, exploded post-pandemic because of a confluence of conditions. This is an argument against institutional complacency and tolerance of those behaviors. I don’t know how, but we need to find some way of communicating the peril to those in positions of power before issues become crises.
  • It exposes a clash of cultures. One of the saddest things I’ve witnessed since MLB issued new guidance for how they would address this issue is the parade of old ballplayers, columnists, and broadcasters lamenting the loss of some great tradition. Or, they trot out the “why now?” or the “You’ve gone too far” arguments. It’s odd to see some actively arguing for cheating. However, people feel ownership of the weirdest things: sports, universities, you name it. When it comes to higher ed, we want students, parents, and alumni to feel invested in the university, but we need to be aware that change is often met with pushback because it upsets people’s feelings of ownership. Baseball needs to change. Some will find it hard to accept that. Universities, and their cultures of integrity, will also need to change. That will rub someone, probably someone with money, the wrong way. Academic leaders need to be prepared and empowered to have difficult conversations about what they’re trying to build and why.

Sunday, as I was writing a draft of this post, a pitcher for the Seattle Mariners was ejected from a ballgame under suspicion of using a foriegn substance. His glove was taken for examination and if it's found to have a foreign substance on it, the pitcher will face a suspension under the MLB’s new rules guidance. It’s a good start. Every summer I coach my son’s youth baseball team. Every year, the players look for any advantage they can find to hit better, throw more accurately, and run faster. When they hear about a professional (a big leaguer!) being held accountable for his actions, it reminds them that there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed between cheating and personal improvement through learning, practice, and growth. They learn that games must be fair to be worth playing.

The mass transition to remote and online learning has certainly presented many challenges, not the least of which has been an increase in the opportunity for students to engage in academic dishonesty.   This has been made especially evident in service-level mathematics courses.  Applications such as Mathway and Symbolab have made it very easy for students to access step-by-step problem solutions while working on course assignments, including online exams.   In 2020, the number of questions posted to Chegg.com between April and August reportedly increased by nearly 200% over the same time-period in the previous year (Lancaster & Cotarlan, 2021).  While there are many strategies for improving and protecting online exam integrity, including the use of multiple exam versions, randomizing question order, and utilizing online proctoring services, no method is foolproof.  The online proctoring service ProctorU administered 340,000 exams in the first three months of 2020 with fewer than 1% cases of cheating.  However, over the course of April, May, and June, the number of administered exams vaulted to 1.3 million while the percentage of students caught cheating rose to more than 8% (Newton, 2020).

One way that we can encourage a culture of academic integrity is to increase instructor immediacy.  Instructor immediacy can be thought of as the behavior that decreases the perceived separation between students and the instructor.   Immediacy is about showing our students that we care; and that we are accessible.  There is a connection between instructor immediacy and academic integrity.   Indeed, it has been shown that instructor immediacy has a significant impact in encouraging honor-code compliance (LoShiavo & Shatz, 2011).  It has also been shown that instructor behavior evaluations were lower among students who had self-reportedly engaged in academic dishonesty (Stearns, 2001).  We can embolden students to embrace academy integrity by increasing our instructor presence.

One way to begin establishing presence would be to create and post a welcome video for students at the beginning of each semester.  You can use this video to introduce yourself, discuss the syllabus, and to briefly provide an outline of your course setup in the LMS.  This allows the students an opportunity to see your face and hear your voice.  I like to email a link to this video on the Friday before classes begin.

It is also important to be proactive in contacting struggling students.  If a student misses or underperforms on an assignment, send a quick email to let the student know that you noticed.  Use this contact as an opening to ask how everything is going.  This gives you an opportunity to initiate a conversation with the student regarding any issues with which they may be dealing.  In my experience, students are more likely to respond to my email and share their situation when they might not have initiated the conversation on their own.  Make it a point, also, to periodically send messages to students who are doing well.  We all like to feel recognized.  Sending out some quick kudos is a good way to acknowledge student performance while illustrating that you are paying attention.  This strategy is not as time consuming as it might seem.  I often use an email template so that I can copy-paste, and then personalize.              

Post weekly course announcements to remind your students of upcoming assignments or to give an overview of what is to come in the class.  If your class is asynchronous, you might consider recording a quick announcement video.  This will give your students another opportunity to see your face and further shows that you are a real person with whom they can communicate.

Finally, do not try to be perfect.  It can be beneficial to your students to know that you are adjusting just as they are.  When courses at my institution pivoted to a remote format in March 2020, I found myself teaching from home with two small children.  As much as I tried to limit class interruptions, they were inevitable, whether it be a herd of wild dinosaurs parading through my living room or a full-on temper-tantrum.  I was nervous that these encounters would detract from the learning experience.  However, getting a glimpse into my life was humanizing.  Students began to ask about my kids.  These students were, then, more likely to ask questions about course material or even attend virtual office hours. 

By increasing our presence and creating connections with our students, we can create an environment in which students are comfortable discussing course materials or other issues.  This will increase motivation and decrease stress and anxiety.  In doing so, we can encourage a culture of academic integrity. 

References

Lancaster, T., & Cotarlan, C. (2021). Contract Cheating by STEM Students through a fil sharing website: A COVID-19 Pandemic Perspective. International Journal for Educational Integrity. Obtenido de https://edintegrity.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1007/s40979-021-00070-0

LoShiavo, F. M., & Shatz, M. A. (2011). The Impact of an Honor code on Cheating in Online Courses. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. Obtenido de https://jolt.merlot.org/vol7no2/loschiavo_0611.pdf

Newton, D. (7 de August de 2020). Another Problem with Shifting Education Online: A Rise in Cheating. Obtenido de The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/another-problem-with-shifting-education-online-a-rise-in-cheating/2020/08/07/1284c9f6-d762-11ea-aff6-220dd3a14741_story.html

Stearns, S. (2001). The Student-Instructor Rrelationship's Effect on Academic Integrity. Ethics and Behavior, 11(3), 275-285.

This week ushers in the first full week of summer. Many of us look forward to these days in the academic calendar to take some much needed annual leave, recharge, and to plan for the fall. Every summer, as I complete my budget request, I’m struck by the sheer number of possibilities when it comes to programming I could do. It’s an opportunity to show creativity and it’s one of my favorite aspects of doing integrity work for a university. One area that I always try to mix up and keep fresh involves the materials we put out across the university. These run the gamut from resources and handouts to promotional items meant for students. Today, I wanted to share two particular successes and why I think they have worked.

The first includes the story of my first foray into the world of promotional schwag. A little background here: I was a tenured English professor before I took my current position, but I did have a little experience with student organizations. I advised the College Democrats and we had notable success with programming from time to time. However, I was never really expected to think about what kinds of schwag (or other promotional materials) mattered to students. That’s why, when it came time to decide on materials in my first year, I started from scratch. My saving grace (in other words, the thing that kept me from wasting money) was that I knew that I didn’t know what I was doing. So, I started asking students. I asked the students who tutored in our unit (the Institute for Learning and Teaching) and I asked students in adjacent student affairs units. The first question I asked was, “What was the best schwag you ever got on campus?” The second question I asked was, “What was it for?”

I got a lot of answers, and, in addition to ideas for individual items, I started to piece together what made schwag successful. Here’s what I concluded:

  1. It had to be something students wanted.
  2. It had to be something they wouldn’t throw away immediately.
  3. It had to have an obvious connection to your department or program, but it didn’t have to be perfectly connected. In other words, as long as the item was branded clearly, it didn’t matter if its function was related to the work done in your department.

That last part was particularly important. If the student couldn’t tell me who gave them the item (that they remembered as the best), what was the point?

That first year I decided to do hot/cold packs with the CSU Honor Pledge emblazoned across the front. What do hot/cold packs have to do with integrity? Nothing. Why did I put the pledge on a hot/cold pack? Simply put, it was another place the students would see the Honor Pledge, and we believed that in addition to seeing it on their exams, on screens across the campus, on building walls, and in other places, there was a cumulative effect. They were about the size of your palm and so I liked the idea that, when they were nursing a sore knee or elbow, they had to read the pledge.

Hold cold pack

The second successful campaign was a refresh from work my predecessor had started. Simply put, the idea was to make bookmarks with the CSU Honor Pledge on one side; a copy of the academic calendar on the other. At first glance, that sounds like the kind of thing students throw away easily, but what I found was that the academic calendar (especially with its relevant “add/drop dates”) kept that item around.

I tried multiple versions of those bookmarks. The most successful version, I think, involved removing the Honor Pledge (which, by that time, had appeared on them for four years running) in favor of integrity-related quotes from recognizable and admired speakers. I included quotes from Mr. Rogers, Frederick Douglass, and Michelle Obama.

However, the thing that made the bookmarks most successful was this: I created them knowing exactly how I would use and distribute them. Every fall, our Housing department puts together a welcome packet for every student entering the residence halls. I knew when we created all 6900 of them exactly how we would get them in front of students.

bookmarks

That leads me to my next take-away: the best schwag is created in collaboration. I knew our student government group needed something to hand out during Academic Integrity Week, so I gave them hot/cold packs. I knew that the dorm wanted something for their welcome packets, so I gave them bookmarks. The best use of our money comes in these moments when we can match our need to get information out about our program with someone else’s opportunity to distribute them directly to students.

Finally, it’s worth sharing advice that my friend and supervisor gave me when exploring these different ideas. After all, none of these ideas are cheap to design or produce. She asked me to remember that these funds represent money that is supposed to support students and their learning. If the efforts don’t match that mission, should we really spend that money? I think about this when I see some of the lavish spending across ostensibly student-focused departments: office-branded moleskine journals, coffee mugs, and t-shirts/fleeces for their employees (to say nothing of the sad parade of expensive team-building retreats). If you can’t make a reasonable argument that those funds are being used for students, keep your money, get creative, and go back to the drawing board.

As we head into the fall and you conclude your season of planning, may these experiences and take-aways guide you to better ideas that serve your students. Of course, if you have successful campaigns/ideas you’re willing to share, please let me and your colleagues know!  

One of the hard lessons we have had to learn (from the pandemic-related changes to our teaching and delivery of assessments) during the pandemic is that while we may have been moderately successful at enforcing compliance with academic integrity and misconduct policies, we have not been as successful at promoting a culture of integrity; when no one was looking, things went south quickly.

It comes as no surprise, then, that there seems to be an increased interest in restorative practices (RP) approaches to academic integrity. Besides providing effective tools to align academic integrity work with the aspirational goals related to civic education that we find reflected in postsecondary institutions’ mission and vision documents and often also in strategic plans, RP also operate on four principles tied directly to the promoting integrity, namely, “inclusive decision making,” “active accountability,” “repairing harm,” and “rebuilding trust” (Karp, 2019, p. 9). [not sure which URL to use here, or whether to use a reference (see below).

A quick word on definitions. I use RP as an umbrella term and restorative justice (RJ) as a sub-category underneath this umbrella that applies RP principles in a criminal justice setting. Thus, the information provided below referring to RJ also applies to RP more broadly.

Reservations remain, however, and these seem to be at least in part due to some persistent myths regarding RJ and RP. The following is an attempt to address some of these. Howard Zehr addresses many of these myths in his excellent Little book of restorative justice (2002):

Myth 1: RJ/RP first and foremost aims at forgiving the wrongdoer, reconciling with them, and at reducing recidivism

Although reconciliation and forgiveness may be part of the outcome of a restorative process, neither of them is necessary, nor are they the primary concern. The main focus of RP is on the harmed parties and on addressing their needs.

Myth 2: RJ/RP are an easy way out for offenders/allows them to shirk responsibility

This might seem counterintuitive, but in my experience and in that of other RJ/RP practitioners I have spoken with, engaging in an RP process is in fact more difficult for students who engaged in academic misconduct than participating in a quasi-legal, disciplinary hearing. An acknowledgment of responsibility is a precondition for a case to be considered appropriate for a restorative resolution attempt. Also, the RP process itself requires engaged listening, participation, and reflection as well as active accountability, as opposed to the often passive role students play in disciplinary hearings.

Myth 3: RJ/RP is a form of mediation

Mediation is mostly associated with finding a compromise between conflicting parties, who share responsibility in a conflict and whose interests are considered on a level playing field. In RJ/RP there are responsible parties and harmed parties, and although there may be harm on both sides, the focus is on an action that caused harm (e.g., academic misconduct), and the responsible party needs to show a willingness to explore the harms as well as ways to actively repair them.

Myth 4: RJ/RP might be appropriate for less serious offenses, but it not for serious ones

RJ/RP require engaged participation and have been shown to work better for more serious offenses. What is important is that the responsible party is held accountable and is supported in doing so.

Myth 5: RJ/RP is much more time and resource intensive than quasi-legal, disciplinary procedure

Although this may be the case in some cases and contexts, it is not necessarily so. The restorative procedures we have developed at MacEwan University keeps the time commitment about the same, while leading to much more satisfactory outcomes (see link to video interviews below).

Myth 6: Assigning educational outcomes is a form of RJ/RP

RJ/RP involve powerful processes that have the potential to be not only educational but also community-building. Deciding on outcomes is a collaborative effort and decision, and it is the process itself and the principles it is based on that makes it restorative. Assigning educational activities as the outcome of an otherwise adversarial, quasi-legal disciplinary procedure is quite different.

Myth/Contentious Issue: RJ/RP are an appropriation of Indigenous legal practices

RJ/RP integrates a blend of influences, including from Mennonites in North America and Indigenous traditions in New Zealand and North America. Although there are similarities with Indigenous legal practices, there seem to also be important differences. Chartrand & Horn (2018) provide an excellent discussion of this topic.

More information on RJ/RP and their application to academic integrity is provided in the ICAI Webinar: Academic Integrity and Restorative Practices, and short video interviews with MacEwan faculty members and a Students’ Association representative on the topic can be viewed here.

Reference:

Karp, D. R. (2019). The little book of restorative justice for colleges and universities: Repairing harm and rebuilding trust in response to student misconduct, 2nd edition. Good Books.