The State of Academic Integrity in the 21st Century – Part I

The State of Academic Integrity in the New Millenium – Part I

Integrity in Crisis

Academic integrity in our education system is in a state of crisis. The year 2011 placed issues of cheating in the spotlight; the media is rife with news exposing cheating on exams, whether exams in a particular course, for professional certification, or entrance into college. It is not only students who are guilty of cheating. K-12 teachers have been accused of altering standardized tests in several states, including New York, Pennsylvania, and Georgia.

Cheating Statistics

The recent reports of rampant cheating in our schools both appall and baffle educators. Yet academic dishonesty is not new. Donald McCabe, Professor of Management and Global Business at the Rutgers School of Business, and the founder of the International Center for Academic Integrity, has well documented since the 1990’s the widespread cheating among university students. The results of his surveys through 2005 suggest that at least 63% of undergraduate students admit to cheating at least once in a given school year. These numbers are likely underestimates given that many students are prone to be dishonest about their dishonesty. The cheating epidemic is not limited to higher education; cheating is equally, if not more, common among high school students. Nor is widespread dishonesty unique to the U.S. Concerns about academic dishonesty are international. For example, an increasing proportion of university undergraduates come from foreign institutions, and cases of academic dishonesty in university entrance and English proficiency exams are on the rise.

Why do students cheat?

If you ask students why they cheat, by far the most common answer is the pressure to get into top universities and get good jobs. Socially, cheating is accepted practice among their peers. This acceptance of unethical behavior persists even though when asked, the majority of students say that they know society views cheating as unethical. This disparity between belief and behavior is justified by an “everyone is doing it” attitude. Why shouldn’t they cheat when those who should be setting the ethical standard–doctors, business executives, teachers, and politicians—are routinely dishonest? Even more disturbing is the proposition that you have to cheat to be successful because the competition is also cheating. In this arena, dishonesty is rewarded with personal gain, and the honest guy finishes last.

From the faculty’s perspective, part of the problem is a misunderstanding among students about what constitutes academic dishonesty. All universities have a code of academic conduct, but often there is nothing formally in place to ensure that students actually read and understand it. Others suggest that cheating is a manifestation of an attitude of entitlement among millennial students—that we are witnessing the emergence of a “cheating culture”, where dishonesty is the new norm. Yet I wonder, is this really the case? Are we witnessing the emergence of a new culture of dishonesty, or are we merely exposing what has long been the not-talked-about status quo?

Who knows? This is an important question, targeted at the root of the problem. But regardless of the origin, academic dishonesty is a serious concern. Academic integrity is the foundation upon which our institutions of higher learning are built. Without integrity, we cannot trust the effectiveness, reliability, and accuracy of a University’s teaching, public service, or research. As we enter into 2012, issues surrounding academic integrity will pose new challenges to higher education faculty and administration as we struggle to determine exactly how prolific cheating is in our schools and universities, and the extent to which we should, and can, prevent it. It is imperative that we instill in our students the value of integrity. The “ends justify the means” viewpoint of our students is myopic; the long-term implication of cheating is not on their radar. Thus it is critical that we convince students that the integrity of their educational institutions is important to their future. There is a lot at stake. One only has to look at Bernie Madoff, Martha Stewart, the mortgage collapse, and Wall Street to see the social implications of a cheating culture.

What are the challenges we face in 2012?

In particular, the growing popularity of distance learning poses new challenges to academic integrity. The issue of academic integrity and online learning are inextricably linked. As online learning proliferates, so do concerns regarding the opportunity for dishonesty in a non-proctored environment. This concern is evident in the recent rise of technologies available to proctor students remotely, check for plagiarism, and authenticate student identity. These proctoring systems are likely to include some combination of technologies that bio-authenticate identity, monitor student activity, and restrict Internet access while taking exams.
The current trends in online education in 2012 will require changes to policy where online learning and academic integrity intersect. These changes will come about for a variety of reasons and by different means.

EduBrief: Academic Integrity in the 21st Century – 5 Trends in 2012
I’ll be talking about 5 Trends that we expect to see in online education in 2012 where I’ll present Part II of this segment in an EduBrief (mini-webinar), on February 16th. Hope to see you there! Register here.

April Cognato, Ph.D., Senior Academic Officer

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