Academic integrity in an age of digital learning

At a time when students’ adoption and use of technology is at an all-time high, and rapidly increasing, we’re approaching the point where there are two entirely different academic environments. The bricks and mortar world, where professors and TAs develop and deliver instruction using methods and techniques rooted in behavioral expectations going back before the invention of computing, and the 24/7 internet world.

And the expectations in either world are clear. Don’t cheat, don’t plagiarize, share only what is yours to share. West Point does a super succinct job of stating this: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”

But in a world where access to the internet is not just ubiquitous, but an assumed attribute of daily life, what defines “cheating” or “stealing” become fuzzy, blurry moving targets for students as well as educators.

Let’s just look at plagiarism. It used to be a student had to literally copy content out of a published work by hand to incorporate it into their own. And the prospect of getting caught was a calculation of the copied text’s obscurity and an instructor’s limited ability to identify and locate the source.

Today, a student can select a sentence, paragraph, section, or entire document with a single motion, and in a second motion, insert that into their own document. From their cellphone, no less. But this “copy and paste” dexterity is something every internet user develops, and relies on. It’s normal, useful, a requirement.

The problem facing students and educators is that “copy and paste” happened so much quicker than our ability to educate students about how to integrate this capability and medium into their behavior as a student. That copying text into a document differs fundamentally from reading a number of sources and synthesizing them into original thinking.

Recently, the New York Times looked into this, and cited studies by Donald McCabe of Rutgers and co-founder of the Center for Academic Integrity, who found “about 40 percent of 14,000 undergraduates admitted to copying a few sentences in written assignments.” The article goes on to point out that a declining number of students even understand that copying from the web constitutes “serious cheating.”

Consumers in general, and students in particular, have become accustomed to frictionless, free access to information on line. Even when you pay for content, much of the web experience sure feels free.

Take Netflix, who millions of students gladly pay $8.99/month to have DVDs mailed to their dorm rooms. That same subscription lets those students watch unlimited TV episodes and movies instantly over the internet “for free” with their subscription on their laptops or smartphones. Do that enough, and those movies will feel pretty darn free and likely forget about the Netflix subscription that enabled it.

The same techniques students use to create hours worth of entertainment on a laptop or smartphone are the same techniques that can create ethical mishaps when used on that same device to study or research. Students, as well as educators, are fuzzy here for good reason:  “And it’s no wonder our students are having a hard time sorting through this because so are we” remarked UW Madison English professor Michael Bernard-Donals.

Educators have some technology on their side here. They can use services like Turnitin to find plagiarized assignments, but this is reactive, a rear-view mirror approach to addressing the problem.

The vast majority of students have a strong sense of ethics, and strive to do the best they can, honestly. But what is becoming clear is these same students have a tenuous understanding of how the rules of ethical studying are spelled out in this age of mobile, digital life.

The pace of change and consumption of technology is not going to slow down to let us all get on the same page, and restart. More education, and collaboration between educators and students is what’s needed. What do you think?

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