Shortfalls in academic discipline at U of A

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Nearly half of surveyed undergrads had witnessed a colleague cheat

Alex Migdal
The Gateway (University of Alberta)

EDMONTON (CUP) — The recently published results of the University of Alberta’s Academic Integrity Survey reveal that 39 per cent of instructors surveyed said they had let a case of cheating go unreported, as did 26 per cent of teaching assistants.

The survey, administered to U of A undergraduate and graduate students, teaching assistants, and instructors in October and November of 2010, also noted that 42 per cent of undergraduate students reported observing another student cheat at least once, while 38 percent of instructors described the effectiveness of the U of A’s academic disciplinary policy as “low” or “very low”.

The report also made a controversial recommendation to review electronic detection resources such as Turnitin for potential use at the U of A, which the Students’ Union has criticized as assuming guilt of students.

Chris Hackett, academic integrity coordinator in the Office of Judicial Affairs, referred to the statistics from the survey as “concerning” and explained that the reason behind them is partly a communication issue.

Hackett explained that the U of A emphasizes its vast amount of resources available for students and instructors to prevent academic misconduct, but that the university doesn’t “necessarily do a good job of getting out in front of people and saying here’s the information you’re looking for.”

“We frequently send confusing and contradictory messages to people,” he noted. “Or we settle on the lowest common denominator: don’t cheat, don’t be bad, which really doesn’t mean anything.”

On top of more than 3,500 survey responses received, focus groups were held for students, TAs, and instructors, which Hackett said were valuable in revealing the need for transparency when it comes to addressing academic integrity violations.

“Justice has to be seen to be done, and I don’t think we’re good at that,” he said. “That’s partly because of confidentially. We have to protect the rights of the people who are going through the process.”

One consensus among instructors was feeling “unprepared and unsupported” in disciplining students. The current process entails an instructor reporting the incident of cheating directly to the dean of the faculty, who then ultimately determines the sanction. Hackett would like to see instructors more involved in this process in hopes of re-engaging them.

“The big one is giving the instructors some level of decision-making,” Hackett said, but added that students need to be protected from instructors’ personal agendas. “We have to have some level of consistency and instructors need to know there are limits to this.”

Hackett is aiming to move the disciplinary system to a centralized system as well, rather than each faculty dealing with academic discipline separately, in order to keep track of serial cheaters and assuring that students are dealt with fairly and consistently.

The plagiarism scandal which hit former Dean of Medicine Philip Baker last June also highlighted students’ misconceptions of the severity of sanctions, according to Hackett.

He explained that expulsions are usually handed out for non-academic offenses where an offender could endanger other students, such as sexual assault.

“When we get into an expulsion for an academic offence, somebody has done something typically repeatedly, deliberately, and willfully refused to follow the rules,” he added. “At that point, we’re basically declaring that we’re no longer trying to teach this person.”

Students’ union vice-president (academic) Emerson Csorba stressed that students and instructors need better communication from the U of A’s disciplinary bodies in order to ensure that academic integrity is as clear as possible.

“There does seem to be a lack of understanding in terms of some of the nuances of academic integrity,” he said. “There’s the big academic integrity related topics like plagiarism that students know a lot about, but it’s more of nuances like collaboration or editing with other students that needs to be better communicated by the university.”

Csorba is adamantly opposed to the report’s recommendation that professors use Turnitin, claiming the move “presumes that students are guilty when in fact they’ll have done their research to create a sound paper.”

The online academic plagiarism detector allows instructors to upload student papers, which is compared to a database of millions of publications and web pages. However, Turnitin recently launched a parent company called WriteCheck that allows students to check for plagiarism themselves, and potentially circumvent the detector software.

The discussion on text matching software is a “critically important issue” according to Hackett, and he expects it to be at the forefront of academic integrity over the next few years.

He admitted that there a number of issues with the software, but thinks the university should still explore the possibility of using it.

“We think it’s unlikely that anybody will ever say, ‘You can’t use any of those tools,’ but we should figure out how we expect people to use them responsibly and how we’re going to handle the pedagogical issues and respect students’ [intellectual] property,” Hackett said.

But Csorba and Hackett both agree that their priority this year is to establish an Academic Integrity Council, comprised of various U of A groups coming together to discuss issues of academic integrity. Csorba noted the council is a good idea as long as it remains an advisory body rather than a policy-making body.

“[The council] encourages continued discussion about academic integrity,” Csorba said. “Without a council, it’s possible that the report is written and just left there. If the Academic Integrity Council has fair representation from across the university and it meets on a consistent basis to discuss these issues, this should ensure that academic integrity moves forward.”

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