Playing by the new rules: online education and academic integrity

“Online education and testing offer the opportunity to introduce new techniques to ensure academic integrity”

Covid-19 has changed Australian higher education beyond recognition, writes Pal Fekete, academic director at Taylors College Sydney. Health restrictions and travel bans heralded a new age of online teaching and assessment for domestic and international students and teaching staff.

Students might now join a discussion or take a test from their homes, student accommodation or thousands of miles away in a different time zone. And while it is essential in an emergency, the questions remain: how should teachers work with students who may be reluctant to engage online and how can they be sure tests and examinations are fair?

The Australian Teaching Education Quality and Standard Agency (TEQSA) has recognised the challenge. It has publicly stated academic integrity is integral to preserving the reputation of Australia’s higher education sector and protecting student interests. But they also noted the growth of commercial essay services and attempts by criminal actors to entice students into deceptive or fraudulent activity.

Academic misconduct is a challenge across the whole student population, no matter the background and nationality of the student, and the regulator TEQSA rightly focuses its advice on all student breaches of academic integrity in its publications and pronouncements. Likewise as educators we also work with the small percentage of students involved with cheaters to educate them about the risks to their education, reputation and well-being and to support them to extricate themselves from such influences.

To avoid misconduct and help build a positive culture of academic integrity online and in person, the Australian government has funded a new toolkit for teachers in tertiary and higher education to help them substantiate any concerns about cheating and, more importantly, to develop a culture where students value their own work and originality.

As a feeder college for the University of Sydney, we have participated in this important work and through this, we know the answer to ensuring academic integrity online goes beyond the technical.

While academic integrity principles and invigilation software help enormously, they won’t stop every instance of cheating. We need to educate all students, before their course starts, about personal integrity, what it means and how important it is. We also need to design exam questions with the assumption it will be open book because students are likely to find ways to have notes or prompts.

Another option is designing banks of questions for each exam section, so students don’t receive the same question. If 10-20 students receive a different question for the same section, it makes it very difficult for them to share answers, although the challenge of this option is it takes time and effort, but you need to ensure fairness across all the questions to maintain the academic integrity of the exam. Of course, such time and effort are well worth it for all involved.

Online education and testing also offer the opportunity to introduce new techniques to ensure academic integrity which wouldn’t be possible in person, building in originality from the beginning. Let’s say you have a course which covers the environment. The exam or assignment could ask students to find an article online related to, for example, fossil fuels, and to write an essay on the response to the article.

However, best practice in the domestic or international arena, begins with teachers engaging students in new ways. Online teaching can offer real benefits for students who, in class, never say a word yet are quite happy to use the chat option online.

Online also makes it a lot easier for students to self-pace. This means those students who are more advanced have the benefit of receiving extra, stretch material, and those more challenged can be provided with additional support in this ‘new normal’ environment.

Looking to the future there are lessons to be learned from the computer games industry. I believe gamification – the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts – will open other opportunities online that we don’t have face-to-face.

I have been experimenting with gamification and not only does it work best when you collaborate with colleagues but there are some subjects which lend themselves more to gamification than others.

Not only can gamification be relevant, contextual, and motivating for students, but the implementation and mechanics can be different for various learner types, thus further protecting academic integrity.

About the author: Pal Fekete is the academic director at the Study Group-run Taylors College Sydney.