Promoting Academic Integrity in the Online Classroom

Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, advocates an instructional design/community-building approach to academic integrity rather than an adversarial approach. Her stint as a police officer informs this stance. As radar gun companies introduced improved speed enforcement tools, the latest radar detectors (often produced by the same companies) rendered such improvements ineffective. “I learned that you can’t out-tech people, and you don’t want to get into that situation. You don’t want to have that arms race. Certainly some security measures are going to be necessary, but don’t get into the habit of relying on technology to establish a climate of integrity, because it can have adverse effects. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being watched all the time,” she says.

Here are Fishman’s recommendations for promoting academic integrity in the online classroom:

Set expectations.

Let your students know you care about academic integrity. If your institution has an honor code, refer to it throughout the course. “If you don’t have conversations that reference the honor code, if students don’t buy into the honor code, it’s going to be a lot less effective,” Fishman says.

In addition, remind students of the importance of academic integrity to you personally. For example, Fishman mentions her role in the International Center for Academic Integrity and talks about academic integrity throughout the course. “You want to mention before the major assignments that integrity is important. You want to mention [academic integrity] while they’re working on their papers. That can make a difference, but I think it’s much less effective without interaction to reinforce that that is one of the mores of the community,” she says.

Build relationships with your students.

When students have a relationship with their instructor, they are less likely to cheat. This is why Fishman recommends making a strong effort to get to know students. She recommends entering the learning space early to chat with students during synchronous sessions, asking questions such as “How are you doing?” and “What did you do this weekend?” She also recommends using gestures. “I type into the online classroom ‘smiles’ and ‘waves’ and ‘say hello to so-and-so’ so that they understand it as a place that is like their face-to-face classroom, and I think that can help establish that rapport.”

By having these social conversations students might be less inclined to cheat for fear of disappointing someone—the instructor—with whom they have established a relationship. “You want the teacher and the student to feel responsible to each other. You want them to feel that they are engaged in the mutual process of understanding—the teacher and students are helping the student learn, and if things go really well, the teacher learns too,” Fishman says.

For instructors who do not have the option to use synchronous communication, Fishman recommends establishing relatively informal spaces to interact “so that students know that not everything is going to be a graded assignment.” She asks students to include a photo, picture, or symbol that appears alongside their name in discussions and blog posts. This helps establish relationships even if students don’t use photos of themselves. “You get familiar with that person. You might not ever know the person’s real name, but you know his or her Internet moniker and picture, and you feel over time that you know that person,” Fishman says.

Help students transfer face-to-face classroom norms to the online environment.

Some online learners struggle with understanding appropriate behavior in the online classroom and mistakenly transfer to the online classroom the norms from other online venues, such as gaming spaces and Facebook, rather than behave according to the norms of the face-to-face classroom. To address this issue, Fishman recommends using analogues of the face-to-face learning environment in the online classroom.

For example, using a tool that is analogous to a chalkboard helps establish familiar norms in a new setting. Similarly, having students respond to questions synchronously helps establish a classroom environment. “It feels like the kind of discussion they might have in a classroom. If you do everything in an asynchronous environment, then it doesn’t feel like a classroom. I want them to see what happens in the online classroom as an interactive exchange, just like a face-to-face classroom would be. It’s not like everything should be the same [as the face-to-face classroom], but I do think there should be special attention paid to making sure that students have that feeling of interactivity by talking with each other and not just getting assignments out of nowhere and submitting them into a black hole. There have to be people attached to those actions, personalities, and interactions in order for you to establish that kind of rapport.”

Keep groups small.

One of the obstacles to promoting academic integrity is class size. If students don’t have the opportunity to establish relationships with classmates and the instructor, they may be more inclined to cheat. “In small classes where the teacher and the students have lots of interaction, there’s a sense of responsibility to one another,” Fishman says.

Financial necessity often dictates large online classes. In order to build rapport, Fishman recommends subdividing large classes into discussion groups of five to 10. “If you’re able to schedule it so that those groups aren’t all meeting at the same time, then it’s possible to still take advantage of the way you teach best,” Fishman says. For example, an instructor might do part of a lecture synchronously and have students do an assignment and then view a prerecorded lecture.
Use frequent and varied assignments. Scaffolded assignments with interim deadlines and pieces that can be assessed throughout the course can make cheating less likely. However, having many assignments can create extra work for the instructor. Fishman recommends providing simple feedback on some of these assignments, such as a checkmark for those who complete an assignment correctly and more substantive feedback for those who need it.

In addition to reducing the likelihood of cheating, having a series of assignments that builds toward a larger project tends to means that the final project is usually higher quality and requires less feedback than had the students submitted just the final project, Fishman says. Although having assignments like this can reduce cheating, it won’t eliminate it, because students can pay others to create all the pieces of the assignment.

Use technology judiciously.

Fishman is not opposed to the use of technology to detect academic dishonesty, and the International Center for Academic Integrity works with companies that provide these tools, “but I do think than an overreliance [on technology] can be detrimental to the relationship between the teacher and the students. You want to be able to detect plagiarism. … What you don’t want to do is feel like it’s an arms race, where you’re trying to put in so many mechanisms [so] that students can’t possibly cheat, and they’re trying to find ways of getting around all the mechanisms you have in place,” Fishman says.

Allow opportunities to play and explore.

When students are supported, are engaged, and have opportunities to explore their interests, they are less likely to cheat. “The trick is to design the course so that everything essential is there, and yet when somebody gets excited about a topic and wants to explore, there’s room for students to pursue that,” Fishman says.

Unlike in the face-to-face classroom, there can be technical barriers in the online classroom. “You don’t want [students] to barely master the technology so that they can barely get the assignments done. You want there to be room for them to expand, grow, play. If you get the students [to] where they’re playing with the technology, the technology is no longer a barrier. …

“If all students were engaged and actually excited about learning, then my job would be over because there would be no reason to cheat. … There’s no reason for students to cheat in an environment where they feel safe, competent, and excited about what they’re doing.”

Reprinted from Promoting Academic Integrity in the Online Classroom, Online Classroom, 13.6 (2013): 5,8. © Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.