June 2023

Picture of hand with a pencil and paper at a desk.

Recientemente he tenido la oportunidad de entender y explorar un poco el sistema educativo de este país. He aprendido que existen distintas formas de manipular el sistema para poder costear u obtener apoyo económico para poder tener la mejor opción académica posible en cuanto a prestigio se refiere. He sido testigo y participe de la presión social y académica a la que un individuo se somete para poder lograr sus objetivos académicos.

Soy una persona que creció en un país donde el desempeño académico es prácticamente lo único importante y decisivo en cuanto admisión y apoyo económico se refiere. En los últimos diez años de mi vida, he tenido la oportunidad de convivir y experimentar con estudiantes con talentos extraordinarios, a quienes sin embargo les han sido negadas y/o cerrado las puertas a instituciones de mejor prestigio. Los motivos son falta de liderazgo en actividades extracurriculares, o quizás simplemente porque de acuerdo con las organizaciones o instituciones ellos representan un riesgo a la inversión económica que puedan otorgar. Y la razón más triste, a mi parecer, es la de no poder costear una colegiatura de cantidades impagables para una familia con un salario promedio.

Ciertamente liderazgo, originalidad, creatividad, conciencia social y por supuesto desempeño académico, entre otras cosas, son características importantes que deben tomarse en cuenta cuando se selecciona una comunidad estudiantil. Sin embargo, pienso que existen factores que afectan el desarrollo y desempeño de una persona. Factores como falta de dinero para sustentar una familia, falta de tiempo para demostrar liderazgo en actividades extracurriculares, falta de apoyo moral y anímico para que una persona desarrolle una personalidad segura y con fuertes convicciones. Existen comunidades minoritarias que desafortunadamente no tienen las posibilidades y oportunidades de desarrollar estas características que muchas veces pesan mas que un excelente desempeño académico. Estas cualidades que un estudiante debe desarrollar para poder demostrar que es una persona calificada para obtener apoyo económico puede prestarse a actividades antiéticas y sin integridad. En mi proceso de aprendizaje de como funciona el sistema educativo me di cuenta de que existen métodos, aunque legales, podrían considerarse poco éticos, tales como contratar a un entrenador para poder escribir cartas de presentación, y compañías que se dedican a buscar formas de comprar propiedades para ser considerado un alumno del estado y poder reducir el costo de la escuela.     

Hoy me pregunto, ¿Como podemos medir mejor la capacidad académica de un estudiante sin quitarle o negarle mejores oportunidades si no tienen las posibilidades de reunir todos estos puntos que más que ayudarles los dañan? ¿Es el sistema un sistema justo para estas comunidades? ¿De verdad existen métodos éticos en las instituciones académicas para escoger su comunidad estudiantil? ¿Por qué la buena educación es un negocio y no un derecho? ¿Por qué no podemos tener un sistema educativo más equitativo?

Open book with pages folded into a heart shape.

I’ve been teaching for over 20 years and have often wondered, which student is the best of the best?  I decided it had to be Carl.  Carl was a motivated, bright student who wrote his work beyond the basic requirements, was friendly and polite, and served as a messenger from the student group-me to me as part of my class advisory board.  I taught him in multiple classes and became the advisor to a student group he formed.  He kept in professional contact often letting me know when he reached goals.  Carl was a delight. 

Carl recommended friends to my class including Jane, who he said was a friend.  Jane missed some key material but turned in an excellent submission despite a lack of attendance.  I clicked on the Safe Assign report and found that the paper had 24% similarities to Carl’s work, but instead of on things like headings and directions it was noting a few sentence phrases.  Odd, I thought…so I pulled up Carl’s old paper from the semester past, and this new submission followed the framework sentence by sentence although it had been carefully reworded. 

I reached out to Jane.  She said that all students would likely have similar papers because the prompts were the same.  I continued to look at the two papers, and they were too similar for Jane to not have studied the paper to write her own work.  After talking with the academic integrity monitor, the paper was submitted for a violation with both Jane and Carl to be questioned.  The monitor had advised no further contact with either student before submission and said I should not have spoken with Jane and to not talk with Carl.  In a few weeks I was notified that both had pleaded guilty to plagiarism.  The punishment for Jane was a zero on the paper.  Both Carl and Jane received one academic integrity point in their records which would mean little unless they were found guilty again.  The academic integrity monitor found the papers to be almost identical.

After this, Carl reached out to meet.  Carl said that Jane was his girlfriend and that on the day the paper was due she’d been at his apartment.  While he worked in the living room, she went to his bedroom where his laptop was and used the password she knew to access it.  She went to the file for the class and then carefully wrote her paper in the hour before it was due.  He said at the time he thought she was just putting finishing touches on her work and submitting it.  When he got the email about academic integrity, she admitted to accessing his work without his permission. 

He thought about fighting it, but it would go to a board and because Jane had stolen the paper from his computer, her sanction could potentially be greater, and there was a fear that her parents would cut financial support for college or not let her go on a much dreamed of internship this summer.  Carl and Jane had two days where they did not speak, as the irony was that Carl tutored statistics and could have guided her through working the statistics in the paper, and she could have created her own work.  After two days, Carl decided Jane had just made a mistake and they got back together as a couple.  Jane had planned and paid for a trip to a state almost 1,000 miles away to see Carl’s favorite band prior to the incident, and Carl felt like that showed her true feelings for him.   Carl had concerns about graduate schools finding out that he had pleaded guilty to an academic integrity sanction.  He had talked to the Dean of the Honors College who said that I had handled the situation incorrectly, and he should never have been charged.  Carl vowed to continue his relationship with Jane and hoped to marry her one day.

I only heard from Carl once more with one of his life update email shortly after our conversation although he did ask me to remain as the faculty advisor for the student group.  After the many updates of the past, I found it a bit odd that there were no updates, not even for the student group, in the past year.

Was Carl more involved than he stated?  Should he have fought the sanction?  Would you continue a relationship with someone in this situation?  Would you have handled the situation differently?

(Editor's Note: During UC San Diego’s Virtual Symposium on “The Threat & Opportunities of Artificial Intelligence and Contract Cheating: Charting a Teaching & Learning Path Forward”, Kane Murdoch gave a talk on Detecting Contract Cheating. This blog post is a follow-up to that talk.)

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Amidst the uproar and shock of ChatGPT and similar Generative Artificial Intelligence (GenAI) tools, it's easy to forget that while there is certainly a brave new world ahead of us, it is not yet here in some ways. GenAI has not so much supplanted all of the existing forms of academic misconduct, as supercharged them. In fact, GenAI makes contract cheating services even cheaper for both providers and students. That is, contract cheating remains a very serious problem for higher education.

So, we're left with not a singular problem, but multiple simultaneous problems. Truth be told, this is one of those times where short-term academic remedies won't be as useful as we would like. As I see it, rather than twisting our underwear in the absence of a better approach, we should be breaking up our challenges into short-to-medium and long term, and planning the steps we can take now, and later, as the case may be.

To begin, then, what core short-to-medium term problems does contract cheating, and now GenAI, pose for assessment and academic integrity? Our primary problem has existed for a long time now - we assess products (e.g., essays) and not processes (e.g., the thinking behind the essay or the writing that produced it). Why is this a problem? We simply do not know the provenance of a disturbingly large proportion of those products. Did the student actually complete the assessment or are they merely handing in a product that someone (or something) produced for them?

When processes are observed, they are usually observed by the course instructor, but this has limitations. Take oral exams, for example. Although some faculty have found some successes in this approach, holding an oral exam for every student may not be tenable in a modular subject-based degree structure. If academics and staff work together, though, we can do something as a team. There are relatively cheap and very effective steps that we can take to gain some visibility of the process students use to create products, thereby giving us a method for assessing the integrity of that process. I'm going to provide two very powerful examples of scalable techniques to identify where students are not learning, ones that my team and I use every day, to assess whether students are doing their "own work", as the slogan goes.

Analysing Document Metadata

As you may know, Word documents, excel sheets, and pdfs contain some information about when the document was created, by whom, and any user who may have edited the document. So, when we think about assessable products, such as essays and the like, we should reasonably be able to view patterns of authorship. Like most of us, students follow their own patterns of behaviour, typically using a relatively small number of devices to create their work. Viewing the provenance of documents across a whole set of submissions becomes significantly easier when you have the whole submission history. Turnitin offers a product that can do this (no, I have no relationship with Turnitin), but you can also do this yourself by downloading all of a student's assignments and looking at the info tab of the files. Everybody has to start somewhere, and that's where I started.

Along with the user who authored ("created") a document, and the user who "last modified" a document, you can also find what software was used, what language that software had as a default, and other pieces of information to build a picture of who was responsible for producing these assessment items.

However, if we want to be more confident of the integrity of the process, additional information would be helpful. This brings us to the second scalable technique.

Interrogating LMS (aka VLE) Logs

Your LMS (or VLE depending on where you are) is a particular kind of website. And like most websites, it logs who is on it, when, and what they're doing, and from where they are doing it. By analysing these logs, universities can gain insight into how students learn. This is basically learning analytics. However, I’m suggesting we can also use these logs for "non-learning analytics"; that is, as a source for information that may indicate an enrolled student has not been learning and is not engaging in the process through assessment.

As anyone who has observed contract cheating up close may know, the 1-1 model of students having an essay written for them by a writer is only one form of cheating. Unfortunately, organised contract cheating has scaled up to involve teams of people carrying out work for many students. Many. And it's vastly more profitable to serve many students in the same subject. So large subjects, such as electives, often become riddled with contract cheating workers acting as students. But this can be visible to those of us in educational institutions. When students are connected through IP addresses to many other students, when they login to the LMS directly from multiple countries in a semester, for example, all of this is visible. There are a range of behaviours which can be searched and found in logs, if only we start looking.

Summary

The goal here is not to catch students cheating, but to better support them. The business model of contract cheating threatens students as well as institutions, and we can only break their business model when we start breaking their profitability. Sadly, as I mentioned above, the patterns clearly visible in data become all the more apparent as the course of study progresses. It is, in truth, quite easy to detect students cheating across the course of a degree. The most important final juncture, to my view, is that a student who has not demonstrated their learning should not be able to graduate with a degree from our institutions. Aside from the obvious reputational risks we run when we graduate a student who is not who we say they are (knowledgeable, skilled, etc) there are further risks that we run. Firstly, the risk that other students see cheating as a perfectly valid approach to gaining a qualification. This is the stage we are at now. Thousands of students have graduated, and are currently completing their studies, without nearly the learning we expect them to have. Cheating is extremely widespread, and largely unchecked. Secondly, and most importantly, we run the far greater risk that our society will stop seeing the value in what we do. They will stop seeing the value in education. If that happens, nothing will save us.

When you live in San Diego California, especially when you were raised with cold Ontario winters, you hate to complain about the weather (or, at least, you hate to complain too loudly). After all, San Diego has a reputation of always being Sunny and always with the perfect 20-24oC or 70-75oF air temp. But, it’s a lie. San Diego isn’t perfect, isn’t always Sunny, and isn’t always the perfect temp, and especially wasn’t this year. We have been colder, wetter, and greyer than I've experienced in my 23 years of living here. And it’s been this way for months. So, when we hit our normal and expected “May Grey” and “June Gloom” weather, it wasn’t a refreshing or even palatable change from the winter Sunshine and warmer temperatures; it was just more of the same. Dull, drizzly, and uninspiring.

What I have discovered about myself this past 5 months is my need for the Sunshine to feel alive, motivated, energized, and positive. Especially first thing in the morning. If the Sun is shining and the birds are chirping, I feel ready to start my day – no matter how difficult or tiring I know it might turn out to be. There’s an optimism, a brightness that serves to counter anything negative or distressing about the events of world. With the Sun, it feels like all things are possible. That there is hope for a better day, and a better future.

In Klara and The Sun, a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Artificial Friends (AFs) like Klara share my need for the Sun. The novel doesn’t explicitly say that the Sun recharges their batteries – that the AFs are solar powered – but rather poetically insinuates that the Sun is that, but also more than that. The Sun is their guiding light. Their Saviour. Their God. For example, the AFs believe that the Sun can heal all that is wrong in the world, and can heal people, like Klara’s human friend Josie who is sick with an unnamed but debilitating condition.

What’s my point? Why does Klara and the Sun, you might ask, belong in a blog post for the International Center for Academic Integrity?

Those of us who work on academic integrity often need inspiration. Perhaps especially those of us who do not just research academic integrity, but work day-in and day-out on preventing and responding to integrity violations. We need a guiding light, reminding us that we're doing good work. We need a sense of hope, a sense of optimism that with our efforts, tomorrow will be better than today. We need a source of courage.

After all, that’s why many (most?) of us chose to work in the educational sector. We believe in growth, opportunities, empowerment, and the power to make a difference. We need to believe that what we do matters, and that with our guidance, the professionals and citizens of tomorrow will make the world a better, more ethical, place.

Yet, just like the grey skies have cast a shadow on the light of San Diego this winter, so too has Generative Artificial Intelligence (GenAI) cast a shadow on the light of learning. What will be the impact of GenAI on teaching, learning and assessment, let alone on skills, jobs, and prized values like integrity, equity, and privacy? We just don't know yet. And we're just at the beginning of this revolution. Even with all of its current abilities, GenAI is quite limited. But as it gets folded more seamlessly and ubiquitously into our workflows - as it will wtih Google Workspace and Microsoft CoPilot integration - will we know what is human versus machine generated? Will we be able to create meaning or make meaning out of what we do? Where will humans be in that scenario? Will we all be out of work, with no sense of agency or care about the world like in Wall-E? Or, will we work alongside of it to better every planet in every galaxy, like in Star Trek?

I’d like to think it’s the latter. But when I think about a future where genetically enhanced humans need Artificial Friends, as portrayed in Klara and the Sun, I lose my sense of my optimism. I feel like the dark grey sky that settled over San Diego this winter and spring is not temporary, but permanent.

And this is weird for me. Normally I’m optimistic (it’s one of the values at my workplace!). Or, to be more accurate, I consider myself a realist optimist. When new things come to disrupt our normal ways of doing things, I think about the realistic challenges of the short term as well as the exciting possibilities of the long-term. For example, yes, GenAI is putting a lot of stress and responsibilities on the shoulders of individual faculty members to figure it all out – how to redesign their courses and their assessments to engage students and their learning in the face of machines who will do their academic work for them. This is a very real challenge. And it’s also a real challenge that students can easily, quickly and cheaply hand over their learning to GenAI. I worry that the ease, the quickness, and the seemingly confidence of GenAI will dull the human mind. That it will slowly but surely numb us to the instant gratification that it can provide, convincing us that there is no value in being challenged, in struggling, in thinking, or in learning. After all, why make it with my own efforts and thoughts when I can generate it with the touch of The Button?

But, I also find it exciting to think about the possibilities of GenAI. The probability that GenAI can free up faculty and support staff from the drudgeries of their work, so we can spend more time with students. That we can offer individualized and meaningful educational experiences, even in large universities. That we can mentor, coach, facilitate and guide individual humans, rather than shepherd large herds of students through an industrialized credit-hour, term-limited system. That GenAI will be the impetus that will finally force higher education to change – to become the active, engaged learning environment that it was always meant to be. That it needs to be. That it should be.

Which will be our future? The one in which we are Wall-E, or the one in which we are Klara and the Sun? In the former, the people are complacent and dumb, happy to let machines run their lives. In the latter, the humans seem to hold their place in the world. Josie – the genetically modified human – recovers from her mystery illness and goes on to live her life. Klara, the Artificial Friend, ends up in a junkyard full of other discarded AFs; left alone within memories of her time in the sun. In Klara & the Sun, the humans “win” by not ceding all of their power, creativity, intelligence, and humanity to the machines.

It is Sunday afternoon in San Diego. And, for a change, it is Sunny. So, for now, I will live in the hopeful possibility that we will not let this moment overtake us. I will live hopeful that we will seize the opportunity to evolve with GenAI, so that we continue to be the source of power in our own lives. I live with the promise that we will figure out how to use GenAI in a way to enhance our lives and our learning, but not let it control us or control our learning. I live with the possibility that we will continue to grow and evolve because that is the only thing, no wait, that is the only human thing to do. And, it is the only thing we can do with integrity.