“High-tech spy glasses could catch UAE’s exam cheats in the act” – – rhetoric gone wrong?

Topics: Blog, News

A recent research study published and then highlighted by local media in the UAE brings about a series of concerns for research, teaching and learning.

I often begin my cyber ethics course with a famous yet simple scenario: imagine a three-lane, brand new road. There is a clear sign that tells of the speed limit, but no radars. How many students who drive would stay within that limit? Invariably, many say they wouldn’t and their justification range from “no one’s watching”, to “who are they hurting” and so on. And therein begins our engaging, engrossing discussion that runs through 13 weeks, reflecting on the importance of having the integrity to ultimately drive within that speed limit even when no one is watching. The focus, the dialogue and the debate are always positive, promoting integrity and ethical values, and establishing trust and respect in our classroom community. 

So, I was peeved when I read a news article about a research study that aimed to “test the efficacy” of  reducing academic dishonesty during closed-book exams, not by encouraging academic integrity, but by ensuring that someone is always watching – via an eye-tracking glass!

The Rhetoric

Let’s begin with the most obvious – the whole idea of making students wear “eye-tracking glasses” just so we can catch them cheating is so outrageous, it throws us back to “caveman/prehistoric times” in terms of where we are at. We, the academic integrity fraternity have been pushing to move away from such rhetoric that criminalizes students, student behaviour and perceptions with reactive measures, labelling them as “cheats” and dehumanizing the act, its consequences and effects! Reactive measures implemented solely for detection should be done with care to ensure we do not criminalize the students. 

But why not?

We know cheating is wrong, we know students cheating in exams is academic misconduct and most institutions have strict policies in place to deal with students caught “cheating”, otherwise it takes away from the integrity of the knowledge imparted and the value of the degree. So, why don’t we want to “criminalize” the students? 

Very simply, we are educators and we want to educate. Being educative is and should be our foremost approach because we want students to learn and grow. We don’t want students to be labelled and branded, that works against learning, reform and rehabilitation. As educators and researchers, our primary goal is to see our students become independent learners, graduate with attributes and skills that will help them in their lives and careers once they leave our classrooms. 

Our goal should be to develop a culture of integrity, take on proactive roles so that we can ensure we are imparting the correct values and correct message to the student body and the community at large. In wanting to develop such a culture, we then look at our policies, procedures, the assessment designs, and even the teacher-student relations. Questions we should ask ourselves are:

  • are we doing enough to support our students’ learning experience? 
  • are we doing enough to ensure we are testing what they learn using appropriate assessment methods? 
  • are we doing enough to ensure we are not setting the students up to cheat?

Making students wear invasive devices just so we could monitor and catch them cheating is antithesis to developing a culture of integrity on campus. The key is to promote the positive rhetoric – integrity values of fairness, trustworthiness, truthfulness, honesty, respect, courage and responsibility. We are not cops and our students are not robbers. We don’t want to play that game.

The Journalism

The title of the news article labels students as “cheats”. If this was an actual case of students being caught cheating  with the help of the device, the title and sensationalism behind it would be understandable – still not ethical, but at least understandable. But that is not the case. The entire study was based on students pretending to cheat while wearing the gadgets and the researchers recording those instances! The reporter wanted to create a “tabloid-ish” impact with the story, which is poor journalism on the reporter’s part. 

News should be news. The article reads like an advertisement for the gadgets provided by the company, rather than journalism. Furthermore, for an article that is specifically aimed at UAE education sector, the reporter quotes two international experts and fails to conduct any investigation locally. UAE has been active in researching the area of academic integrity since 2016, hosting conferences, workshops, and conversations around the nation. More than 40 publications, journalistic and academic, trace the state of integrity research in the country. 

Parting thoughts

The topic of academic misconduct is already a sensitive one, with a host of taboos, perceptions and misunderstandings that creates a lot of negativity around it. As responsible educators, researchers and journalists, we should endeavour to bring about positive change in our students’ lives, change the conversation to encourage and promote integrity and work towards a holistic approach to developing a culture of integrity so that we don’t need such detection methods to begin with. The amount of money and effort spent trying to implement such detection methods could surely be used for better innovative teaching and learning activities that would bring about real change in students’ learning and have real, positive impact on their future?

About the Author
Dr Zeenath Reza Khan is an assistant professor at Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences and recently became head of the Integrity in Academia and Beyond Research & Learning Forum at the university with a multi-disciplinary nine-member committee that has come together to work hand-in-hand on research and campaigns across the campus and beyond on academic integrity and beyond. Zeenath is a leading expert in the MENA region on academic integrity Dr Khan completed her PhD on Academic Integrity in 2014, chaired the International Conference on Academic Integrity -Middle East Chapter in 2016 in collaboration with ICAI and is currently chairing the 2020 Plagairism Across Europe and Beyond Conference to be held in Dubai.
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