Oct. 5, 2020

Concerns about academic misconduct rise during pandemic

Move to online learning necessitated by pandemic offers ideal opportunity to reimagine education, says Werklund School researcher

As K-12 schools and post-secondary institutions wrestle with online education and assessment during the COVID-19 pandemic, questions of whether these organizations are prepared for the new learning landscape are being raised.  When it comes to ethics in web-based learning, Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton, PhD’09, believes, in many cases, the answer is no, but suggests that within the challenge lies an opportunity.

Eaton, an associate professor in the Werklund School of Education whose research focuses on academic integrity, contract cheating and plagiarism, says that as much learning will continue to remain online for the foreseeable future, educators are becoming increasingly concerned about cheating. For many, the pandemic has been a wake-up call.

“Just a few years ago people said contract cheating didn’t happen in Canada but, in reality, over the last 20 years it has become a mega global industry.”

Academic dishonesty then and now

Eaton notes that cheating is not new, as term paper mills have made their services available through mail order catalogues since the 1970s, but that the scope and ease of access today is unprecedented. “Now it is just the click of a button.”

In addition, the businesses that target students for their illicit services have changed to become more predatory in nature. “These companies try to position themselves as having benevolent intentions — helping students, making time for students, that they care about students. They use exploitative tactics to convince students that universities don’t care about them.”

Now, throw in the disruption to learning caused by the pandemic and it is not surprising that more students are engaging in dishonest practices. Eaton says that while the University of Calgary does not have official data yet, other universities are reporting increases of up to 38 per cent in academic misconduct cases.

“As for why the surge in cheating is happening, I suspect it is a combination of a number of factors: we have more younger students learning in an online environment than ever before and cheating is generally higher among first-and second-year students, stress is at an all-time high, and assessment expectations may not have been clear as people shifted to remote learning.”

A fundamental change to teaching and learning

Though the pandemic is posing real and significant challenges, Eaton says it is also offering an occasion to reimagine education.

“The pandemic put us in a situation people have never been in before and it is helping, pushing, challenging them to think in new ways. I hope we are looking at a large-scale change to teaching, at more intentional conversations about what it means to teach and learn ethically.”

And while some may question the harm cheating does, or be tempted to turn a blind eye to such misconduct, Eaton warns that this dishonesty has a significant impact beyond just academia.

“There’s lot of research directly linking academic integrity in the classroom and ethics in professional and societal contexts. Basically, what happens in the classroom is an indicator of what will likely happen in life — countries with high levels of corruption in society are mirrored by high levels of academic corruption.”

Integrity partners

As these deeper conversations about education are taking place, Eaton advises that there are measures educators can take immediately to help students to maintain their ethics and succeed in their studies.

“Talk to students about learning expectations; make it clear what is OK and what is not OK. Consider alternative assessments. As educators, we really need to ask ourselves what is the most effective way for students to show us what they have learned.”

“Message to students that the learning community provides everything they need to successfully complete their learning, there is no need to go to outside parties for help; that we — educators and the learning community — care about them.”

Parents have a role to play as well. Eaton says that rather than becoming involved only when their child is facing an academic misconduct charge, as is often the case, it’s more beneficial for parents to engage with their children as integrity partners.   

“Early on, parents should be part of the conversation about how to properly support learning for when their child asks for help, so there is a clear understanding of where the line between helping and enabling misconduct is drawn.”