January 2020

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?

Professional baseball, the nation’s cherished pastime, is- right now, today- in the midst of an integrity crisis. For those of us who work to promote integrity in our classrooms and institutions, the parallels are unmistakable. We can learn a lot by watching it all unfold. 

First, let’s talk about what happened. The MLB recently concluded that the Houston Astros used a camera positioned in centerfield for the purposes of stealing the hand signals that opposing team’s catchers use to tell their pitchers what to pitch. When that feed was relayed to the dugout area, players were alerted when certain types of pitches were coming (usually anything other than a fastball). In a sport where it is estimated that a batter has mere milliseconds to decide whether or not to swing, knowing what pitch is coming is a tremendous advantage. 

Put simply: it’s like walking into an exam knowing which questions will be on the test. 

Baseball, sadly, has had a history of managing cheating scandals: from the infamous Black Sox scandal from a century ago to more recent scandals involving how teams are allowed to recruit and pay promising prospects from other parts of the world. However, what sets this scandal apart is its simplicity. 

Almost immediately, the comparisons to our work emerged. First, I couldn’t help but notice that the news broke in the familiar, predictable manner that characterize our cheating scandals. An allegation was made, some react with dismay over violated values, others call for swift and severe punishment while some (including those involved) minimize, excuse, and enable. Of course, it was predictable that once the findings were published, others came forward to share new, even more damning information. So what can we learn from this scandal?

Lesson #1 - Baseball needed to do a better job of listening and so should we. As the story unfolded, there were many former and current players, managers, and executives who said that they knew the behavior was happening. Some even said that they had complained to MLB about other organizations, but had been ignored or didn’t know how the institution handled those complaints. In other words, many with direct experience in the game saw it happening and some even tried to get authorities to address it. How familiar does this sound? How often have we heard chatter across campus that cheating is happening, but are slow to react because of a lack of direct evidence? What the Astros scandal illustrates is the damage that can happen when institutions take a heavily reactive approach OR don’t communicate what they’ve done when complaints or concerns are shared. The eruption of more information, accounts, and concerns that happened after MLB published its report shows how vital communication (and maintaining avenues for that communication) is to enforcing an ethical standard and sustaining a culture of integrity to any organization. 

Lesson #2 - The scandal illustrates how dependent our institutions STILL are on the integrity of one individual.  I mean this in multiple senses. First, the whistleblower in this case was Mike Fiers, a current pitcher for the Oakland A’s who had played for the Astros in 2017. Despite the fact that many in baseball believed that something was awry, those who didn’t have direct evidence were frustrated and those with direct evidence were silent. In addition, one of the consistent responses among those involved has been that, while they felt in a vague sense that what they were doing was wrong, in the atmosphere of competition, they were able to justify their actions. It’s troubling to consider how long this might have continued had it not been for Friers speaking out. 

Second, it took someone outside of the institution, journalists Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich, to call out the behavior, to say it was wrong, to provide the evidence they had, and remind MLB of its own standards before anything happened. Sometimes, sadly, it takes someone with a clear vision of that ethical standard to put a voice to it. Something about that clarity snaps those involved out of the frame they’ve been using to justify the behavior. This reminded me so much of a recent case involving a graduate program at our university. As I talked with the program director, I was struck by the clarity with which she articulated their ethical standards and it was clear to me that whatever justifications the students had concocted in their group to minimize their behavior, the line she was drawing between what was acceptable and unacceptable in their profession made it clear that they had gone too far. That clarity made everything that came after (a lot of difficult conversations and accountability) easier. 

Lesson #3 - We have to do a better job of calling out the predictable equivocation, minimization, and excuse-making that occurs when accountability happens. One of the most troubling aspects of the scandal, both as a fan of the sport and as someone who holds a belief in the power of language and the importance of communication, was the way that those invested in the teams, the players, and baseball itself tried to explain away the behavior. The responses were depressing if only for their banality. Versions of “everyone cheats,” “this isn’t a big deal,” and “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying” were and still are being thrown around as responses in the media. We know how damaging these postures can be to the process of a student learning and development, especially for accepting responsibility for their actions and truly learning from them. I was encouraged when, during the week, a prominent sports broadcaster was met with widespread disapproval from colleagues when she stated that the real blame lay with the whistleblower, Fiers, for violating one of baseball’s norms regarding sharing team secrets outside of the clubhouse and naming the Astros publicly. I was encouraged by the insistence of a standard by her peers, not just of acceptable behavior in the sport, but also of a standard for how we talk about these incidents when they occur.  I was encouraged that writers that I have grown to respect have, in the last few days, encouraged others to face difficult truths or hard realizations about the sacred objects of our fanaticism. We can do the same at our institutions. We have known for a long time that the best way to promote academic integrity at universities is for peers to encourage integrity among their peers. We should expect the same of our professional colleagues.

As new tantalizing accusations emerge that shape our understanding of the game we thought we knew, I hope we’ll all spend time reflecting on how quickly confidence and interest in even our most cherished institutions can wither when their integrity comes under question. This isn’t a polemic. Baseball and universities aren’t going anywhere. But if no one values them, will it matter? 

Baseball great Yogi Berra once reportedly said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” I hope we all will do that in the coming days.

In August 2019, the University at Buffalo (UB) rolled out new academic integrity policies and procedures for both undergraduate and graduate students. Undertaken in an effort to improve how we handled cases, the larger impetus was to begin a culture change around how students think about academic integrity. Will it work? With one semester under our belts, it may be too early to tell, but here are three highlights that I think are helping to move the needle.


At UB, the Office of Academic Integrity is housed in Academic Affairs and as the director, I report directly to the Vice Provost. This structure provided the necessary clout as I reached out to schools and units across our multifaceted university. Because deans and directors were getting the message “from the top” that academic integrity was an institutional priority, they were inclined to give me time at faculty meetings to discuss the upcoming policy changes. More often than not, these conversations also felt like an opportunity to (re)inspire instructors about the requisite value of integrity in the academic enterprise and their role in upholding it.

Centralization of Process and Support

Our past policy adjudicated academic integrity cases through departments, so students would be sanctioned by instructors and then could appeal to the chair, to the dean, and ultimately to the Vice Provost level. Now students can only appeal to the Office of Academic Integrity. 

Additionally, records had largely been kept within departments, so a student could be behaving dishonestly in both English and Computer Science, but neither unit would know about the other. With a centralized office through which all reports now come, we are able to hold students accountable across the entire academic spectrum and sanction more appropriately for repeat offenses. This centralization of process and expertise allows for more consistency in enforcement across the university and helps faculty feel supported by the administration in their efforts, thus increasing their compliance with the policy.


Education has to be part of a culture change, and one prime opportunity for education is after an infraction occurs. The new UB policy allows undergraduate students with first-time non-egregious offenses to undergo an educational remediation process and clear their record. The remediation is a three-module online course designed to provide both direct instruction on academic integrity and ample reflection. The process includes pre and post-meetings with our office to discuss what triggered the cheating, how they can avoid similar behaviors in the future, and the role of integrity in their intended profession. Our early data show that students find these meetings valuable as it forces them to confront the many repercussions of their actions, providing some evidence that our culture is changing one student at a time. (We will be presenting on this topic at the upcoming ICAI conference in Portland!)

So can our new policy affect culture change? UB is a comprehensive state university with a combined population of 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students across thirteen different schools. Culture change is no easy task. But with targeted and supported university-wide efforts, I’m feeling optimistic.


Tell us how you are changing your culture of integrity by commenting below!

Recent advances in cheating detection have made it possible to detect a great many more academic integrity violations in higher education than in past times (see here; here; and here). However, one thing has persistently failed to advance, and that is the type of assignment and grading used in higher education. In a multitude of courses, regardless of topic or content, students are told to write “papers” using something like the following actual set of directions (see here and here):

Please submit your 10-page paper by the deadline. It must address the main themes of our course. All papers must be in 12-point Times New Roman font, SINGLE spaced, with 1” x 1”margins, and checked for spelling, grammatical errors, and appropriate language. All material referenced in the assignment must be properly cited in APA format. Headers, pictures, graphs, and extra spacing. do not count in content length requirements. Papers that do not meet the formatting criteria will be downgraded significantly.

It is impossible to say what course this assignment is for. Only one sentence actually focuses on content, while every other one is about form and formatting. Just looking at these specifications, it seems like the content doesn’t really matter as long as formatting is good!

And this is exactly where the problem lies. As many psychologists and sociologists have found, when we feel like there is little connection between what we are being asked to do and what we think we need to be doing, we tend to feel that breaking rules and engaging in dishonest behavior is much more acceptable (see here, here, and here). No matter what cheating detection techniques we use, we will still find students cheating under such conditions, because the assignments themselves make it more likely to happen.

It is here that a particular set of concepts from the postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard have practical implications. Baudrillard, in his book Simulacra and Simulation (1981), spoke about the situation of hyperreality- a situation when a representation or symbol that is no longer linked to reality is indistinguishable from reality, or when a simulation has become more real and important than reality. In such a situation, reality fades into the background and no longer matters.

What an apt description of a passing, plagiarized paper! When the assignment which claims to represent learning no longer has to do with learning, we have entered the realm of hyperreality. Baudrillard provides four stages through which a representation goes on the road to hyperreality as follows:

    • a direct correspondence between a representation and reality,


    • the representation becoming more important than what it still represents,


    • the representation no longer being linked to reality,


    • the representation becoming all that exists.

These stages conveniently provide us a way to evaluate our assignments. Any good assignment is one which is clearly linked to the learning that is supposed to take place, while the worst assignment is one which exists purely for its own sake. Thus, we can take Baudrillard’s stages and turn them into a set of questions to ask ourselves. Find out more about how to check your assignments at the 2020 Annual Conference this March!