Not Guilty, Your Honour: students and cheating

Honour codes and cheating

Two fascinating stories recently about students cheating and responses to it. All universities face the issue of how to educate students on the importance of honesty and integrity in academic study and avoiding plagiarism and other forms of cheating. Many US institutions have what is called an Honour Code to which students are expected to adhere and which covers all aspects of their behaviour in academic and non-academic activities. Similar statements can be found in the registration or matriculation agreements signed by students on arrival at UK universities. These also relate to the disciplinary regulations covering academic and other offences which describe the powers the university has (which may range from fines, to mark deductions to expulsion) to respond to behaviour which breaches these agreements.

The first of these pieces, in The Chronicle of Higher Education describes how Coursera, one of the big MMOC providers, has moved to add an “honour code prompt” in response to reports of widespread plagiarism by students following its courses:

Specifically, they must check a box next to this sentence: “In accordance with the Honor Code, I certify that my answers here are my own work, and that I have appropriately acknowledged all external sources (if any) that were used in this work.”

Only a few courses that are now under way include essay assignments, so just three courses are affected (though tens of thousands of students are enrolled in each one). Officials say they may add the honor-code prompt to other types of assignments in the future. Students in all Coursera courses already agree to its honor code when they sign up for classes.

“A large part of the plagiarism arises from lack of understanding of the expected standards of behavior in U.S. academic institutions, especially among students who have not been trained in such institutions,” said Daphne Koller, a co-founder of the company and a Stanford University professor, in an e-mail interview. “We believe that this language will be quite helpful.”

It is interesting that the view here appears to be that this is really an issue about cultural difference and alternative norms about what is and is not acceptable in terms of academic work. This is likely to be a factor when there are so many students, from many different backgrounds and educational traditions, taking a course. It is a challenge faced and addressed in traditional university education too. What is different here though is that the nature and operation of MOOCs means that plagiarism and other forms of cheating is inevitable. With huge numbers of students taking each class and automated or peer marking and no quality assurance then it is simply impossible to be confident about the integrity of the assessment process. Such an invitation to students to sign a pledge looks, at best, a little tokenistic.

Meanwhile, Harvard University, which has never had an honour code, is to consider instituting one as it investigates whether at least 125 undergraduates cheated by working together on a take-home exam according to this piece in The Washington Post:

Officials said they intend to start broad conversations about academic honesty, including why it is vital to intellectual inquiry, in the wake of what is believed to be the largest such episode in recent school history.

Harvard University is investigating whether dozens of undergraduate students cheated on a take-home exam last spring.

“We really think we need to work harder,” said Jay M. Harris, dean of undergraduate education. “We do think it’s an opportunity to really put out before the community how much we value integrity.”

School officials said Thursday they discovered roughly half of the students in a class of at least 250 people may have shared answers or plagiarized on a final. They declined to release the name of the class or the students’ names.

“These allegations, if proven, represent totally unacceptable behavior that betrays the trust upon which intellectual inquiry at Harvard depends,” President Drew Faust said.

What is perhaps most surprising about this incident is the scale of it with half of a class of 250 said to be involved. The key difference between this and the Coursera response is that the University detected the possible cheating and is acting on it in order to maintain the standard of its awards. That’s not something we can expect to see from a MOOC provider in the near future (of which Harvard is of course one, albeit indirectly, through its partnership in edX).

The other rather dispiriting conclusion we can draw from all of this is that human nature is such that many people will, if you give them the opportunity, cheat.

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University “cheating league table”

A rather dubious league table

The Telegraph has a story based on reported incidences of plagiarism which it describes as an:

investigation into cheating at universities, with thousands of students caught plagiarising, trying to bribe lecturers and buying essays from the internet.

As noted in a previous post this issue is really about improved detection rather than a greater prevalence of cheats.

But, anyway, given that they’ve gone to all this effort, you might like to know that the top 10 looks like this:

2005/06 2009/10
Greenwich 540 838
Sheffield Hallam 117 801
Kingston n/a 799
Westminster 840 749
East London n/a 733
Central Lancashire n/a 642
Leeds Metropolitan 157 532
Wolverhampton 360 498
Coventry 74 428
Middlesex 289 425

Bottom of the table

2005/06 2009/10
Dundee 0 0
Cambridge n/a 1
Bristol 3 2
Abertay Dundee 19 5
Durham 2 5
City 4 7
Leicester 0 8
Oxford 11 12
Essex n/a 18
Birmingham 15 20
Sheffield n/a 20

Which, of course, proves absolutely nothing other than that different institutions have different ways of recording, reporting and dealing with plagiarism.

The Sun investigates academic offences

The Sun seems to have a new found interest in academic offences. It says that “160 exam cheats were booted out of university last year”.

According to the respected journal:

DIMWITS with notes scrawled on wrists and arms were among 160 exam cheats booted out of university last year. The brainless old wheeze of writing answers on body parts continued to beat hi-tech scams such as accessing the internet with mobile phones, The Sun can reveal.

We submitted a Freedom of Information request to discover the most popular ways of cheating – and which campuses had the most culprits. Worst was Teesside University in Middlesbrough – where 17 students were caught. Middlesex University expelled 15, followed by Kingston (10), Sheffield (7) and University College London (6).

Scams were: Notes written on SKIN, including palms and legs; BUYING coursework such as essays off the internet; STEALING – like the Chester University student who swiped another’s memory stick and passed work off as theirs. Faking ILLNESS to have poor results upgraded; Nipping to the LOO after hiding notes there; PLAGIARISING work on the web and HIDING notes in pencil cases and dictionaries; STAND-INS taking the exam; PRETENDING a bereavement affected performance – and lastly using a MOBILE.

Great to see tabloids interested in this particular aspect of higher education.

iPhone giveaway leads to worries

Diverting piece in the Chronicle about the impact of new technologies on student behaviour and the campus experience: Abilene Christian U. Will Continue iPhone Giveaway.

iphone

The giveaway seems to have had an impact on the way students relate to each other and they are now obsessed with their devices:

The university’s unusual effort to give every freshman an iPhone or iPod Touch has been a huge success, officials say, and they recently decided to continue the project in the fall. But the devices are altering campus life at the 4,800-student college—and students say that not all of the shifts are positive.

“It has changed how people interact with one another on a day-to-day basis,” said Daniel Paul Watkins, a senior who is president of the student government. “Now walking around campus, nine out of 10 students either have their iPod headphones in or they’re texting or they’re talking on the phone,” he said. Sure, that’s happening at colleges across the country, but Mr. Watkins, who bought his iPhone, believes it is even more pronounced at a campus that has pushed the latest cellphones. “The West Texas charm of ‘Hey, howdy, everybody knows your name,’ has shifted inward—everyone’s enthralled by their device.”

The other concern is that iPhones simply make it easier to cheat:

“Since the iPhones were introduced, I honestly think that academic integrity has gone down,” said Mr. Watkins. “I’ve seen people cheat, and I’ve heard people talk about how easy it is to cheat.”

This though should be easier to control.