I recently returned from the Conference on Academic and Research Integrity (ACARI) 2023 held at Middlesex University Dubai.
The event was a great success and showcased the vibrant and forward-thinking debates being had by higher education professionals worldwide which have been lent added impetus as a result of increasingly rapid technological developments in recent years.
One of the key messages from the conference was that the onus is very much on institutions and academics to adopt considered rather than too hasty responses if they don’t want to find themselves leaving their students all-at-sea whilst their staff play ‘whack-a-mole’ in a futile attempt to ‘police’ the issue out of existence.
As one of the keynote speakers clearly articulated, academic integrity is about so much more than just student conduct; such conduct is often a symptom of problems that lie elsewhere.
Generative AI tools such as ChatGPT may be just the tip of an iceberg and universities will need to be canny if they are to stay ahead of the curve in their efforts to help students to fully appreciate what academic integrity is and how to behave with integrity in relation to their own conduct.
Traditional guiding principles (such as those articulated by the International Centre of Academic Integrity) continue to be a good baseline when previously established definitions are coming under pressure as a result of these changing circumstances. Trust, honesty, fairness, responsibility, respect and courage make for a good start, albeit one that may need refreshing in the light of new affordances made possible by technology.
As Advance HE’s own report Integrity in the era of Generative AI: co-creating principles for ethical practice in Learning, Teaching and Assessment indicated, these tried and tested principles may need to be supplemented by additional precepts, such as adaptability, collaboration and/or ethical awareness.
Three areas in particular that will need to be considered include curriculum design and delivery, staff development, and a shift away from the primacy of policing towards learner enablement.
Curriculum design and delivery
Curricula that emphasise grades and outcomes over learning and personal / professional growth are less likely to encourage students to adopt and embrace academic integrity. Ramping up the tension through over-reliance on high stakes tests rather than dialing down the tension through the deployment of more manageable assessment formats risk fostering a climate in which students’ efforts are focused on trying not to fall foul of imperfectly understood rules and expectations.
Inconsistent staff responses to poor academic practice and/or provision for learner development that sits at one remove from the course itself, can foster a fear of failure rather than developing learner self-efficacy, confidence and reflective practice. Mainstreamed learner development, characterised by one-team-working involving academics and student support and/or library teams, would be a more enabling approach.
Staff may welcome support and guidance in this area. A failure to address the need for continuous development of staff skill sets could be a costly oversight on the part of universities that allows inconsistent and sometimes poorly thought through systems and practices to thrive unchallenged. Just because a Turnitin report shows a 20% match does not mean a student has plagiarised their assignment. Such reports show text matches and sources, they are not necessarily evidence of academic misconduct, they need interpreting and staff need to be engaged in discussions about academic integrity too.
As another keynote at the conference astutely pointed out, these discussions may well need a disciplinary dimension too as what is reasonable and fair in one subject may translate very poorly if applied uncritically in another area. In the case of Generative AI for example, Advance HE’s report Integrity in the era of Generative AI: co-creating principles for ethical practice in Learning, Teaching and Assessment has shown higher education institutions are grappling with these issues using a wide variety of approaches focusing on themes as varied as policy development, ethical considerations, equity and access, and cautious adoption of new technologies. There can be no doubt that these technologies will continue to evolve with increasing rapidity, therefore ongoing dialogue will be essential to foster continuous learning, development and adaptation by educators as we seek to hone teaching practices that emphasise higher-level, interdisciplinary skills, in which AI has been carefully designed in or carefully designed out.
Thirdly, we will need to pivot away from ‘policing first’ approaches in our efforts to ensure academic integrity. Most students have an awareness of the existence of academic integrity and/or academic misconduct, but this understanding may be woefully underdeveloped, especially in environments where there is a lack of transparent and encouraging dialogue with staff through which their agency is promoted and supported.
If we want to spread learner autonomy and enablement let’s make academic integrity visible; talk about it, illustrate it, teach it, celebrate it. Graduate Attributes for example will need to incorporate AI literacy, ethical awareness, critical thinking, emotional intelligence and flexibility, if they don’t already. Anyone who has chaired academic misconduct panels will know the number of ‘career-criminals’ in this area is greatly exceeded by the number of confused, struggling and/or frightened individuals for whom the experience of a referral (and its consequent sanction) will do nothing for their confidence in their own abilities to turn things around.
Academic integrity has never been solely about student conduct. The advent of generative AI could prove an invaluable if unexpected spur for those of us involved in HE to take stock of what works, and what doesn’t. It’s a chance to refresh and reset our practices and policies in order to create something better for both staff and students in the future.
About the author: Professor Mark O’Hara is a Principal Fellow, a National Teaching Fellow and a winner of the Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence (CATE) in the UK. He has over 30 years’ experience in higher education in a wide variety of roles including undergraduate and postgraduate programme leadership, Head of Student Experience, Associate Dean for Learning, Teaching and Academic Quality and Associate PVC (Education). Mark is also Vice-Chair of the European Association for Institutional Research (EAIR) and his interests include student enablement, staff leadership development and inclusion in higher education.