A Culture of Integrity – 1

For the final project for my Canvas.net class Understanding Cheating in Online Courses, I need to (and I quote from the course’s web page – so you know I’m not plagiarizing): “design a plan of action for helping to cultivate a culture of academic honesty and integrity in one or more specific contexts (like the institution where you work).”

Since the context in which I’m working is the world of massive online courses, rather than traditional (and smaller) physical or online classrooms, I wanted to see if the principles learned from that cheating course could be applied in an environment where tens of thousands learn (or don’t learn) simultaneously and a personal connection between teacher and student is largely impossible.

One important thing to keep in mind is that cheating is driven just as much (if not more) by laziness than dishonesty.  In his own research, Professor Bernard Bull (who teaches the cheating course) found no subjects who cheated via means that could be considered clever or high tech.

There were no computer hacks or Mission-Impossible-style break ins to photograph answer keys, for example.  Rather, cheating continues to be mundane and unimaginative, consisting primarily of age-old techniques such as looking at the paper of the person sitting next to you, asking people who took the test before you what’s on it, and sneaking information into the testing room written on your arm or clothing, or programmed into some electronic thingamabob.

Plagiarism was a big topic of the class, and while it’s benefited more from new technologies like the Internet than has cheating on tests, most plagiarism-style cheating centers on simple copying and pasting unattributed material into a paper (vs. the only slightly more onerous process of retyping it from a book or journal).

Like most social science research, Professor Bull’s work is based on self-report surveys (in his case from people who were allowed to anonymously describe their own successful cheating experiences).  And while it’s possible that super-genius/high-tech cheaters aren’t willing to fess up (even on an anonymous survey), I think it’s safe to say that the there are few if any cheating Jokers or Lex Luthors out there, simply a bunch of people ready to cut corners to get what they want (which is usually a high grade).

In fact, it was the lack of such grades on most massive online classes that I assumed made MOOCs largely secure from cheating, given that the old admonition that “you’re only cheating yourself” is truer in a MOOC (where learning vs. grading is the only reward) than it is for most traditional or online classes where something external to learning is at stake.

But while I assumed that cheating was something we’d have to deal with once the pathways were cleared to give genuine credit for MOOCs, it probably makes sense to create a culture of integrity within this new learning modality before such external values are created (especially since – as this story points out – people are already cheating on current MOOCs, regardless of the fact that credit is not really at stake).

Which must mean that something is at stake if people are willing to cut corners in order to obtain this financially worthless certificate or that all-but-unrecognizable badge, even at the cost of their own integrity.

As we learned in class, self-esteem can easily get caught up in grading as can interpersonal issues (especially ones regarding perception of fairness).  For research shows that cheating (at least self-reported cheating) seems to go up in environments where students have the perception that teachers are just going through the motions, where assignments seem repetitive and dull, or where the dishonesty of the student body is assumed (with threats of punishments of honor code violations ever present, for example).

As we turn our attention more specifically to MOOCs, I’d like to zero in on the concept of “cutting corners.”  For while I have yet to cheat in any of the courses I’ve taken if you define cheating as looking up answers to test questions on the Internet or plagiarizing in a peer-graded essay, I have done the minimum to obtain a pass (or high-pass when it’s available) in classes where something seemed to be lacking in terms of level of engagement or challenge.

So tomorrow, we’ll look at this subject of corner cutting more closely in an attempt to generate an integrity policy that can work across the diverse universe of massive online education.


2 Responses to A Culture of Integrity – 1

  1. Paul Morris June 26, 2013 at 11:26 pm #

    This is something which also surprised me. I had naively assumed that, given the absence of any accreditation (or indeed any grade), students would feel little imperative to cheat. Sadly, I have been proven to be too optimistic.

    In three of the courses which I have recently or am currently studying, plagiarism has been highlighted by instructors as a problem and in one of those courses I had clear evidence in the work I assessed. Ironically, given the suggestion that cheating is most common in courses where the teaching or assignments are poor, one of the most highly rated courses (Introduction to Interactive Programming on Coursera) also had the most rampant cheating. In one peer assessed programming project, 40% of the work I evaluated was copied from the same source. some other posters suggested they had 60% or more. Now I would not usually be looking for plagiarism but the work these ‘students’ had submitted had a particularly unusual and characteristic bug!

    On another course (Introduction to Psychology on Coursera) the Professor has been concerned enough this week following the submissions of the only peer assessed work (which only contributes 10% of the overall mark) to produce a lecture on plagiarism. On yet another Coursera course (Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World ) a poster reports that they have received a direct cut and paste of a Wikipedia article.

    What is common to all these reports is that absolutely no effort is being made in the cheating. Copies of entire articles (or programs) are submitted without even apparently checking the contents. What these students overlook is that anything copied from a public source on the internet is easily identified, particularly when no effort is made to disguise its origins. I remember some projects submitted to me by my own High School students where they had not even bothered to remove the embedded hyperlinks or, in one case, change the name in the header.

    Cheats must be getting lazier I think. Back in the ‘good old days’ when you had to actually transcribe by hand from a book or journal most people at least attempted to link together copied sections with some of their own words…

  2. Hernan June 27, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

    As long as the faculty keep pushing the moral and honorability arguments against cheating instead of just a rule of the curse, all efforts will be useless.

    As the other author said there are too many different cultures in MOOCs. To try to iron them into a unique Truth is nonsense. That doesn’t mean that we should embrace relativism. The same power teachers use to state, for instance, the language of the course should be use to state other norms and rules.

    Besides it could lean to sentences that fall from themselves. I’ve read in a Coursera forum someone, a TA no less, accusing that same lack of integrity you mention to a student who doesn’t double-quote a phrase, an attributed phrase. I understand the logic: bad quotes is malformed attribution, bad attribution is plagiarism, plagiarism is a form of cheating, cheating is deceiving; but do you really think you can make us believe in it? “Forget a quote and you are a racketeer” is not a good way to teach how to write a good academic essay.

    How do we convince students of the world to follow Turabian’s style? By saying that until 2005 we were in darkness and that she brought us the light?

    Forget codes of honor, oaths and all those Middle Age folklores that goes well with brick-and-mortar Universities were the community is already built. Just keep it simple.

    PS: I’ve written this with half tongue-in-cheek. But one of worst thing I’ve found in MOOCs is that in my fifties I’ve got to meet callow youngsters trying to teach me honorableness.

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