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Ways to tackle academic dishonesty in the blended learning model

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As the academic year of 2020/21 recommenced, some schools chose to welcome students in strictly virtual classrooms. However, most combine online courses with one to one instruction, adopting a blended learning model.

The choice of modality is rarely the sole decision of the school. It’s rather the result of a necessary truce between governments and the raging COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s take a closer look at blended learning and its vulnerability to academic dishonesty.

What is blended learning?

The first mentions of blended (or hybrid) learning date back to the 1960s, when mainframe and minicomputers were first utilized for technology-assisted teaching. The concept became popular with the use of videotapes in the classroom in the 1980s and the wide adoption of personal computers in the 1990s. But it was the universal availability of internet access that created the version of blended learning teachers use nowadays.

Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines blended learning as “a way of studying a subject that combines being taught in class utilizing different technologies, including learning via the internet.” Being a mix of offline and online activities, the blended learning model isn’t immune to the flaws of distance education, and academic integrity violations are a serious concern.

How dangerous is academic dishonesty for today’s education?

In short, it very much is. The phenomenon is extremely common, and its effect can be detrimental to the learners’ future.

Even before the pandemic, cheating was a pressing matter for secondary and tertiary education institutions around the globe. The numbers speak for themselves:

  • More than 20,000 UK students paid third parties to write assignments for them in 2017.
  • A study conducted in Italy revealed that 61% of university students had cheated on exams once or more, while instructors were unaware of the dishonest behavior in 89% of the cases.
  • In Australia, the government’s concern with the current situation led to the formation of a special Education Integrity Unit with GBP 2.2 billion in annual funding. The country is also promoting a legislation to outlaw any commercial services involved in contract cheating.

But has there been a change in academic misconduct with the switch to online and blended learning? Researchers at the University of Sofia (Bulgaria) have concluded that it’s the methods of cheating that differ rather than its frequency. Students are more likely to illicitly copy or plagiarize content in face-to-face exams, while exploits of identity authentication are more prevalent with online activities. However, all types of cheating have consequences, and it’s not just about penalization.

Academic misconduct corrodes the very structure of the teaching process, casting a shadow on its basic values like academic integrity and trust. Even more dangerous are its long-term effects on the students’ lives – from the possibility of expulsion to the permanent damage to one’s professional reputation.

With all that in mind, do teachers stand a chance in winning the war on academic dishonesty? And what would count as a victory? Let’s keep looking for answers.

How can educators deal with academic misconduct?

In a nutshell, a quick and painless recipe for eliminating academic dishonesty simply doesn’t exist. Using shortcuts here would be cheating. There are roads, however, that can lead both parties to a junction – a place where academic integrity in blended learning is not compromised.

Educate students on the importance of academic integrity

When surveyed, many students are unable to define academic integrity, due to little or no education on this subject. This knowledge gap is something educators need to address.

Dr. Irene Glendinning of Coventry University comments on the matter: ‘We are busy strengthening the provision of good quality educational materials about academic integrity, academic study and writing skills to ensure all students understand their obligations and our expectations.’

Start the dialog early on

Penalizing students for academic misconduct is standard practice in high schools and universities, but isn’t it a little too late? By that time, they might have already fallen into the bad habits of plagiarism or contract cheating. Introducing students to the concept of academic integrity as early as possible would help them establish a strong moral code and nip cheating in the bud.

Teach students about the dangers of plagiarism

When students resort to plagiarism, they may know the short-term risks but fail to consider the long-term consequences. Providing enough information on how dangerous plagiarism is and why it should be avoided is the educator’s responsibility. After all, recurring incidents of plagiarism may cause irreparable damage to a person’s academic or professional reputation, or in some cases, ruin one’s career.

Use plagiarism detection software and AI-based tools

Any modern teaching model – blended or online – must have automated plagiarism detection in its employ. Plagiarism detection software like Unicheck can be a quick and reliable solution, easily integrated with all popular LMSs. With access to extensive online databases and AI-powered algorithms, these tools are extremely effective at identifying plagiarized content.

Besides checking for plagiarism on the fly, modern AI-based solutions can guard academic integrity by performing a variety of other tasks. Algorithms like Modifind (by Unicheck) are able to detect sophisticated forms of text modifications, such as hidden and replaced symbols, images as text, layers in documents, etc.

Ban essay mills

The popularity of contract cheating is growing with the blended learning model, creating more work for the so-called essay mills – entire companies of ghostwriters. Governments need to take immediate action to ban essay mills and illegalize the use of their services by students, cutting this form of academic fraud at the source.

Use remote proctoring software to prevent cheating on exams

Remote proctoring is the use of software-assisted means to assess and control students’ behavior during examinations. This includes preventing students from switching to other software or browser windows, conducting visual oversight, and analyzing eye movement to ensure that no unauthorized materials are being used. Take into account the privacy concerns in this delicate matter and pick a reliable partner with a clear and compliant data protection policy. Luckily, there is no shortage of offers on the market: resources like Proctortrack, ProctorU, or Examus will suit a blended learning routine perfectly.

Focus on changes in teaching and assessment techniques

New methods of cheating emerge constantly, driven by the advances in technology – from using auto-summarize features to compile essays to leveraging the power of smartwatches during tests. One of the reasons students engage in academic misconduct is that modern examinations often rely on mnemonic skills rather than on understanding the material.

‘We need to set a different style of exam—one which requires more emphasis on students applying their knowledge using critical thinking, rather than just regurgitating facts.’,  – Dr. Thomas Lancaster, Senior Teaching Fellow at Imperial College London, UK

Conclusion

It’s as simple as that: the fight for academic integrity is not for the faint of heart, but peace is the only way to victory. It will take a combined effort from teachers and students to bridge the gap created by the pandemic, and both parties should start taking t steps towards finding middle ground. The only area where no compromises can be made is academic integrity itself. Without it, the academic process will lose its meaning and purpose.

While blended learning may not be the ultimate and most efficient model of education, it currently represents the best of both worlds: the latest perks of technology with a human touch. Let’s aid the system in reaching its full potential by embracing its benefits and guarding it from the perils of academic misconduct.



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