February 2020

This “in case you missed it” blog post highlights 3 news/media items that raised my blood pressure in the last couple of months.

Inside Higher Education - Course Hero Woos Professors (Doug Lederman)

Have you noticed a change in narrative around sites like Course Hero and Chegg? Are you curious about the shift? If so, check out Lederman’s article exploring the time and money that Course Hero has spent on rebranding itself in the eyes of professors. It is a great example of how this narrative is being promulgated not just by the companies themselves, but by the media - 58% of the content reinforces the positive image, as does the placement of the article in Lederman’s “Transforming Teaching and Learning” column that “explores how colleges and professors are reimagining how they teach and how students learn”. So, to Lederman’s opening question “has [Course Hero’s] outreach to professors changed the narrative?”, the answer is yes - and Inside Higher Education might be helping them do that. (Side note: shout-out to our very own David Rettinger who tries to add some nuanced and ethical context to the piece).

EdSurge - Are Algorithmically-Generated Term Papers the Next Big Challenge to Academic Integrity (Jeffrey R. Young)

Jeff and EdSurge have been diligent at covering contract cheating of late. See their other articles here, here, and here. I found this one particularly interesting because it tackles the impact of technology on cheating and the notion that we can beat technology with technology. Yes, students can currently ask computer software to write their papers for them, but the papers are of horrible quality and unlikely to get them suspected of cheating. But what happens when the papers are better? What happens when “google glasses” look like regular glasses? This article reminds us that educational institutions have to put more time and energy into creating cultures of integrity, teaching ethical decision-making and rethinking the ways in which they teach and assess learning if we’re really going to maintain integrity in the twenty-first century.

Chronicle of Higher Education - Cheat on Your Homework? In this Harvard Class, Just Say You’re Sorry (Lindsay Ellis)

I read this article back on January 23rd and didn’t know how to respond, even when the Communications Officer at my institution suggested I write a letter to the editor in response. I was frustrated with the reporter that they would take one professor’s practice and give it such a prominent platform, with little space provided to the counter-arguments to such a practice. I was tired of thinking about how to respond, yet again, to the false notion that responding to cheating is being a police officer, not a teacher. I was miffed at another professor deciding that their time is so important, that they are willing to undermine or side-skirt University policy instead of using professorial influence and power to improve University policy and processes. I don’t disagree that we have to make processes for responding to integrity violations as fair and efficient as possible, but I do disagree with the fundamental premise - that if a professor doesn’t feel like following University policy, they don’t have to. As Matt Reed notes in “Plagiarism Reports”, an Inside Higher Education blog, “in the name of fairness, due process, serial offenders and legal protection [and I would add ethics], I encourage faculty to use the process, rather than freelancing”.

She opened the door and you could see the fear on her face, and the shame in her eyes. She nervously sat down in front of the seven of us, afraid to look up, her hands trembling, and we began.

Thanks for meeting with us. We are the Academic Conduct Committee. Do you understand why we’ve brought you in?

Immediately her chin began to quiver, her eyes snapped tightly shut, her shoulders started to shake, and she finally started to cry. Snot ran down her face along with several tears as she blurted out one continuous sentence that tried desperately to make sense of how she’d gotten to this place. There were the standard apologies and reassurances that she’s not a cheater, that’s not who she was raised to be. She didn’t think through the consequences of her actions, didn’t understand at the time that what she did was misconduct. She was under tremendous pressure with some life circumstances, issues with her job, a sick family member, and a recent parking ticket. She can’t figure out where it went wrong, of how she was now sitting in front of us facing an F in her course – the last course she needed to finally graduate. Her parents would be so upset, and she’d probably lose her financial aid, and she felt embarrassed and humiliated.

To say it was uncomfortable to watch would be an understatement. Sadly, this wasn’t the first time we’d seen this reaction. Granted, sometimes there are no tears, just anger and defiance. Other times there are only excuses and threats of lawsuits.

It’s a torturous process—painful to watch, and painful for the students who, for whatever reason, made the choices they did that landed them in the hot seat.

That’s the problem with acts of misconduct though—students rarely consider the consequences until they’re caught, and by then it’s too late, no do-overs or take-backs. Of course we must assume most students are decent and upstanding with at least some moral compass and they don’t begin their semester with a premeditated intent to scam the educational system. However, some students are really good at rationalizing and justifying their misconduct in the moment, usually because of some life situation, circumstance, or inconvenience taking place at a crucial academic juncture. It’s only exacerbated by the pressure to get a good grade at any expense… and that’s when the panic sets in. At that point, it’s hardly possible to stop and consider the long-term effects of potential actions, and, therefore, students stay blissfully unaware (or purposefully ignorant) of the potential aftermath.

The struggle, of course, is getting students to think about these situations before they’re in them. But how do you manufacture a safe, low-stakes environment for students to experiment with academic choices and see the potential ramifications of their actions without suffering the fallout of poor choices? The answer came from the staple of any 80s kid’s bookshelf: A Choose Your Own Adventure book!

We created four fictitious characters, complete with backstory, based on our student population and demographics, and then wrote a narrative based on actual courses, assignments, and academic scenarios in our institution. We asked students to take on a persona and indulge in the circumstances of that persona in a live game. Then, just like in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, students were able to read through these narratives and make decisions for the main character in order to explore the potential consequences of their actions. Students could safely navigate through several different misconduct opportunities as many times as they wanted and discover the path each of their decisions might lead to.

Because not every act of misconduct is caught, incorporated within these narratives is an element of chance. At times, the game instructions directed students to roll a virtual die, which would determine their fate. For example, after choosing to start your research paper late, you ask the instructor if you can re-submit your own work from a previous course; Roll a 1-3 and they say yes—Roll a 4-6 and they say no. Or, after choosing to copy work from someone else, roll the die to see if the instructor pays attention to the Turnitin score on the assignment; Roll a 1 and you succeed at getting away with submitting someone else’s paper as your own—Roll a 2-6 and you get caught.  

These profiles were launched during our 2019 International Day of Action, first to instructors and then to students. To learn more about the profiles, find out how it was received, and how it’s helped our institution better focus our efforts on academic integrity, come view the poster session at the 2020 Annual Conference this March!  

Before working in post-secondary education, I taught high school mathematics.  The most impactful change in the culture of that math classroom was the elimination of grades.  With the support of my principal, going gradeless in my classes and focusing on effective feedback showed me how I can empower students by not making the course about grades but rather how we can challenge their thinking and work towards different goals on understanding, creativity, and self-regulation.  Noticeably, students were no longer tempted to cheat – as the motivation had shifted to learning from getting top marks. I often return to this experience as I work with our team at Seneca College on shifting the culture on academic integrity with our students, faculty, and administrators. I am reminded of the work it takes to move away from trusted routines and beliefs – but how the impact on student attitudes and learning made it worthwhile.  

Two years ago, at Seneca, Laurel Schollen, Vice President of Academics kick-started the plans to create an Academic Integrity program at the college.  She brought together the Academic College Council with representatives from administration and faculty, Seneca Student Federation, the Teaching & Learning Centre, Libraries, and created an Academic Integrity Committee.   The plans got underway with the introduction of a new policy that was implemented in the fall of 2018. This policy differed significantly, moving from one based more on discipline to one that was grounded in a teaching and learning approach.  

Understanding that to make a shift in culture college-wide, the collective agreed to work on the following actions:

    1. promoting awareness of academic integrity across the institution;


    1. providing academic integrity education at all levels;


    1. supporting students with clear, consistent, and accessible resources that help them with making the right decisions and to encourage them to find help when they need it; and,


    1. supporting faculty in the creation and use of assessment practices that are authentic and integral to student learning.

Digital badges were developed for the completion of Academic Integrity modules for both faculty and students.  The student badges include three tutorials that guide students to understand better the academic integrity policy, scenarios to help them make the right decisions, how to find the resources to support their studies, and how to properly cite sources.  If a student completes all three tutorials, they will earn a milestone badge.  

[caption id="attachment_13965" align="alignright" width="392"]Micro-credentials for Seneca Academic Integrity Micro-credentials for Seneca Academic Integrity[/caption]

Faculty can earn a micro-credential by completing an Academic Integrity tutorial that focuses on the policy, processes at the college for dealing with academic integrity infractions, and scenarios that guide faculty through various types of situations such as contract cheating, plagiarism, group work, and impersonation.  Over 8000 digital badges for Academic Integrity have been issued to both students and faculty at Seneca since the launch in September 2019.  

Faculty development needs to move beyond awareness of the policy and understanding of the various types of academic integrity infractions.  The Teaching & Learning Centre offers a five-week course that supports open discussions and a deeper dive into the more complex issues such as online teaching, contract cheating, international students, and the design of assessments to reduce cheating.  

There wouldn’t be an educational institution that didn’t want their graduating students to be passionate about learning and possess the quality of thinking that would be applied in their real-world work.  To accomplish that, we need to value the product less, the process more and focus on discovery rather than results along with meeting the program standards and prepare them for their future careers and pathways.  There is a preoccupation with grades and measurable outcomes, which may turn out to be the least important result of learning. Cheating is often associated with human experiences, education, ideas, values, fears, and ambition.  The environment and the situations that the student is placed in can be just as important. In addition to the resources provided to students to educate and support them to be successful, faculty are learning about what they can do about improving their students’ environment, such as building and strengthening relationships, effective and timely feedback, and providing authentic, and relevant assignments for students to engage in.  

Our work with faculty doesn’t focus on finding ways to prevent students from cheating, but instead addresses the reasons why they wanted to cheat, what was considered cheating by the faculty member, and why.  At the ICAI Annual Conference in March, a panel from Seneca will present their journey on shifting the culture of academic integrity college-wide. The panel consists of our Vice President of Academics, our Student Federation President, the Director of the Teaching & Learning Centre, and the Manager of Library Services.  Each of their various roles helps with this collaborative movement and allows us to achieve a more widespread campaign across the college. 


This blog post was co-written with Dr. Mary Jo Finney, Professor of Reading and Chair of the Department of Education at the University of Michigan-Flint.  Previously, Dr. Finney served as Dean of the School of Education and Human Services and Director of the Thompson Center for Learning and Teaching, both at the University of Michigan-Flint.

On campuses across the land, the conversation about academic honesty and integrity has long been around, often with a primary focus on plagiarism.  Several of our own academic and support units at the University of Michigan-Flint (Thompson Center for Learning and Teaching, Thompson Library, Thompson Writing Center, and Office of Extended Learning) work with faculty to help students understand and avoid plagiarism.  On a wider scope, there are presently posters all over our campus regarding Ethics, Integrity, & Compliance from the Office of the Vice-president and General Counsel for the University of Michigan, but these are focused on the work of faculty and staff, and less about student academic misconduct.

There is much to consider about academic integrity and misconduct in both breadth and depth and the need is ubiquitous, not just on our college and university campuses, but also in our schools.  Of course, academic integrity is intimately connected to teaching and learning. Without a clear understanding of what constitutes integrity, honesty, and trust, the teacher-learner relationship cannot flourish.

Fundamentally, academic integrity depends on honesty to others and oneself, and education about what constitutes academic dishonesty or misconduct.

Our recent work on academic misconduct procedures in the School of Education and Human Services (SEHS) was conducted by the SEHS Academic Standards Committee (ASC) during the 2018 – 19 academic year in response to the struggle we had dealing with allegations of academic misconduct the previous year.  We had in place a carefully developed set of Student Grievance Procedures posted in the university catalog, but absent from our documents was a carefully laid out procedure for handling allegations by faculty of student academic misconduct.

Some of us thought that when academic misconduct occurs in a course, the faculty member has the authority to impose whatever sanction seemed appropriate and within the jurisdiction of the course (e.g., a reduced or failing grade on an assignment or for the entire course).  Then, if the student wishes to grieve the sanction imposed by the faculty member, the student should have recourse (through the Student Grievance Procedures) to do so.  

This raised in our ASC conversations a fundamental question about the rights of an accused student.  Should a student have only the Student Grievance Procedures to follow as recourse to a sanction imposed by a faculty member?  Alternatively, should there be a process in place that allows a student to respond to an allegation first, before an imposed sanction?

Related to this fundamental question, we can also ask about students who were either not taught, or who failed to learn, what constitutes plagiarism or other forms of academic misconduct.  In the real world, ignorance of the law cannot be used as an excuse, but in our schools, colleges and universities, how do we, as educators, respond to ignorance of academic misconduct when faced with an incident of such?

The SEHS ASC ultimately determined that we needed to develop academic misconduct procedures, as well as an academic integrity statement for our section of the university catalog and our course syllabi, that ensures that students will first have the right to be heard, and to a fair hearing, if necessary.  

During our session (Saturday, March 7, 11:05 – 11:50 a.m.) we will present details of our work, including the developmental process, the fundamental questions we tried to answer, and the procedures that we have drafted. Attend our session to learn more!