A Matter of Academic Authenticity & Integrity
COVID-19 and the rush to offer everything tertiary online has, as everybody appreciates, shifted the sands with respect to how university education is experienced. This includes further moves into assessing courses remotely via online assignments, quizzes, and allied tests. Moreover, it has been a central factor in the slow rise of online education around the world. The question has always been and remains: How do we know it is actually the student who has authored the submitted work?
Throwing away the baby with the bathwater
The temptation for governments, education authorities and even major universities to put blanket bans on entire market segments of online providers or to question the authenticity or surety of all online offerings is an overreaction. To simply do so follows that old crooked logic thinking of A dog has four legs, fur and a tail. So, everything with four legs, fur and a tail is a dog? Clearly, that logic is questionable.
We maintain that online provision and fully accredited private providers aren’t the problems – it is how we choose to assess and engage with students that make the difference. And the recent QILT 2022 responses unambiguously indicate that a number of Australian private providers (those not embedded in research, but highly teaching-focused) have, again, topped the charts nationally with respect to engaging with and supporting students during their studies.
The QILT results help show that some of our smaller, private providers pride themselves on knowing their students and their capacities and helping them avoid the temptation to resort to assignment fraud.
Separating teaching and assessment
Certainly, back in the days of yore (which wasn’t all that long ago in our opinion) essays during a term were frequently (certainly in many European universities) just indicators of a student’s progress (formative) rather than pivotal elements of their summative assessment. In the UK, end-of-year and end-of-term exams and tests customarily determined whether a student continued or departed. Even then, student essays and exam papers were submitted anonymously and often marked collegially at a peer institution – thus overcoming the risk of bias or nepotism. But most interestingly, the teaching term (or semester) was not bulked up with continuous pauses for internal assessment processes or reviewing of assignment group work in the way that many academic courses are now delivered. Teaching and assessment were, essentially, more separated and teaching was the more dominant activity with assessment occurring only at the end of an intensive teaching period.
We believe this is a resolvable scenario. Again, much of the answer lies in how we choose to assess students’ work and the Sector’s willingness to move away from some of its current assessment practices.
A Return to the Examination Hall or viva voce
Returning to face-to-face examinations is a possible answer to elements of the student fraud scenario. The examination hall could either be a physical space or an electronically mediated and timed virtual space. Essays written in timed online examinations are also frequently utilised by some institutions.
By far the greatest potential to determine that students are individually progressing, up-to-speed and academically equipped is to return to the viva voce. Again, this may be laborious and time-consuming, but it is recognised as highly effective – and can be conducted live via Zoom or other electronic interfaces. A student questioned in real time has to either know their subject or be left wanting. Emphatically, it is the student who gets to demonstrate their learning – and not an external actor on a contract cheating website. Some universities do this already in a variety of disciplines. Doing it routinely and across the board would be a means of authoritatively gauging true student achievement.
Non contract arrangements
Less on the radar, perhaps, is the potential for non-contract and familial augmentation of assignments and online assessments by others. Or in the old currency: parental involvement. In just the last month we have (coincidentally) also come across a small number of parents who state that they take their children’s tertiary education so seriously that they have been checking, editing, re-writing and ‘adding value to’ every online assignment and test their sons and daughters have been given- including the academic dissertation of one young man studying at master’s level.
Dealing with cheating
TEQSA’s task of closing access to contract cheating websites and imposing large fines on offenders is one strategy. Talk of changing student culture within universities in respect to cheating is another. The latter is an unlikely project as cultural perceptions as to what cheating is and how it is construed vary greatly around the globe. In some cultures, ‘getting caught’ is shameful but ‘getting away with it’ isn’t. Academic cheating will escalate as they are clearly lucrative opportunities for those involved.
To do nothing significant or to leave it to each university/provider to decide how to act will surely weaken Australia’s entire higher education reputation significantly.
Emeritus Professor Jim Mienczakowski is currently a Higher Education Consultant.
Emeritus Professor Greg Whateley is currently Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Group Colleges Australia.