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Education Report

The pandemic’s impact on cheating and why it might be occurring — Episode 003 of The Score Podcast

“But as an organizational leadership theorist, we know that resources can be found for what we find to be important. And people judge what is important in a particular culture based on what the leaders are attending to, what they’re spending money on, what they’re saying.”

In episode 003 of The Score Podcast, Dr. Tricia Bertram Gallant (@tbertramgallant) joined host, Kathryn Baron, to talk about issues and potential solutions for cheating in academic settings. Dr. Bertram Gallant is the Director of Academic Integrity at University of California, San Diego and she is Board Emeritus of the International Center for Academic Integrity. Her upcoming Jossey-Bass book with co-author Dr. David Rettinger, Cheating Academic Integrity, Lessons from 30 Years of Research publishes April 12, 2022.

In the 38 minute episode, Dr. Bertram Gallant talked about the pandemic’s impact on cheating and why it might be occurring. Most telling is her assertion that to address cheating, it has to be a priority given the funding and resources needed to convey its seriousness. Said Dr. Bertram Gallant, “we know that resources can be found for what we find to be important. And people judge what is important in a particular culture based on what the leaders are attending to, what they’re spending money on, what they’re saying.”

Additional excerpts below. Listen to the full episode on Apple, Spotify or at The Score.

Kathryn Baron (02:13): I’d like to start with asking you, how has the scope and type of cheating changed with remote learning due to COVID-19?

Dr. Tricia Bertram Gallant (02:22): Difficult question to answer, because COVID-19’s still ongoing, and some schools are still in emergency remote teaching. Although a lot of us have come back, or we’re trying to do hybrid. We don’t have a lot of data from that period of time. But, anecdotally it seems that the contract cheating did increase during this time. Contract cheating, is the word, [or] the phrase we use to define when students outsource their academic work to others. And so, there are websites that exist where students can post their exam question, or their assignment question, or their paper assignment, and somebody else will do the work for them. So that definitely increased during the pandemic, both because there were more opportunities to do so in terms of all of my assessments were now remote, but also, I think because of the stress and pressure the pandemic led students to take more risks and do more things that they wouldn’t have done in “normal times.”

Dr. Tricia Bertram Gallant (03:34): We do know that from the research that establishing connection and community in the online environment is more challenging than in the in-person environment. And so when people feel disconnected from others, when they feel more anonymous, or their actions don’t matter, or don’t impact others, that can lead to all sorts of behaviors including cheating.

Dr. Tricia Bertram Gallant (10:53): Well, our academic integrity office is quite unique in America. There’s a few universities in America that have either an honor system that’s student run, or an academic integrity office that tends to be staff run. And it’s odd that it’s unique, that you would think academic integrity is so critical to the essential teaching and learning mission that every university would have an office that focuses on educating about academic integrity. And it’s common maybe in some other countries like Australia, but not here. And so my office, our mission is to promote and support a culture of integrity in order to reinforce quality teaching and learning.

Dr. Tricia Bertram Gallant (21:14): Cheating knows no geographic boundaries. So it actually is pretty similar worldwide. You might get a study here or there that shows higher or lower rates in one country over another, but generally speaking, the rates are pretty consistent, and I’m talking self-reported rates of cheating. So these are students telling us how much they’re cheating. So some social desirability bias is there, which means that the numbers are probably higher than what they’re telling us. And it’s as low as 10% of students admitting that they cheat at least once a year, to as many as in the 40%, or even some studies have shown in the 70 and 80% range are admitting to it. So there doesn’t seem to be a difference by country. And I would say that if you talk to anybody like me in different countries, they would say our students are stressed, our students are pressured, because it’s a global education system at this point.

Dr. Tricia Bertram Gallant (22:55): But as an organizational leadership theorist, we know that resources can be found for what we find to be important. And people judge what is important in a particular culture based on what the leaders are attending to, what they’re spending money on, what they’re saying. In recent years, we’ve seen this country in particular, the United States, trying to tackle racism, for example, in ways that haven’t been tackled in the past. And in particular, in higher education institutions, a lot of higher education institutions have done things like created, if not an Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, at least a person who can keep the university focused on the goal.

There’s requirements in curriculum and there’s requirements in tenure and promotion for faculty that they attend to diversity, equity, and inclusion. And that’s because the universities decided this is very, very important. And so universities can decide the same thing about academic integrity, that this is a critical piece of our teaching and learning mission. We must spend money on it. We must have symbols that we care about academic integrity. We’re known, myself and some others are known for saying that if we don’t do this, if we don’t attend to academic integrity in a very proactive, intentional way, we have the risk of all of us turning into essentially diploma mills, where we are not truly, honestly and fairly assessing and certifying knowledge and abilities because cheating is potentially out of control. That sounds very hyperbolic and very alarmist, and I’m not talking tomorrow, or next week, or next month, but there’s signs that cheating is becoming institutionalized in the periphery of higher education by all these companies that exist to facilitate cheating. If we don’t act in a way that counters those highly effective actors, then it can’t be good.

Kathryn Baron (25:45): What can we do, and what can the International Center for Academic Integrity do when there are these, as you mentioned, contract cheating agencies that are actually traded on the stock exchange? They’re just as embedded in the fabric of our economy right now.

Dr. Tricia Bertram Gallant (26:01): Anytime that there’s big actors like that on one side, you need big actors on the other side. And the International Center for Academic Integrity, although is approaching 30 years old in 2022, is small and not well supported frankly. Every college university should be a member of ICAI to support its mission of cultivating academic integrity cultures around the world. Without that support, we just don’t have the resources to counter those other organizations directly. And so we’re left with working [on] trying to help universities and colleges and faculty, in particular, rethink, one, we have to counter their narrative as much as we can. So are there ways that we can, again, it’s insidious because students get text messages, they get emails, they get Discord server and WeChat message messages from these companies? How do we counter that? How do we say no, don’t do it?

Dr. Tricia Bertram Gallant (27:02): It was easy if there was a flyer on campus, back in the day, again, if there was a flyer on campus saying, hey, post your questions, give your question to us and we’ll answer it. I could slap a sticker on there saying, don’t be a cheater. I could do direct messaging. It’s a lot more difficult now. So we do need support. We need a national and international backing behind this, like for example, in Australia where the quality assurance agency, TEQSA, pushed and they now have a law against contract cheating. And, in fact, just one shutting down a company from advertising cheating services in Australia. So that’s the route that we have to take in addition to thinking about how can we teach differently? How can we assess differently? Given that it is the 21st century and the internet and all exists, and all of these other technological advances are going to keep coming. We have to keep evolving as an educational institution and as a curriculum, to teach and assess differently than we did 30 years ago.

Kathryn Baron (28:11): Is integrity in some way a part of accreditation for colleges and universities?

Dr. Tricia Bertram Gallant (28:16): Not in the United States. Though it is in Australia. We do not have quality assurance in the United States, and we do not have a national approach, it’s regional. And there are no pressures from the accrediting agencies for institutions to attend to academic integrity.

Kathryn Baron (32:46): We’ve discussed this on a couple of other episodes in terms of the scope of cheating today. But what I’m wondering is, how new is cheating? Is this something that has evolved as higher education has become the North Star for getting jobs and getting ahead in life?

Dr. Tricia Bertram Gallant (34:06): So cheating has always existed. Contract cheating has always existed. This is not new that people are getting other people to do their stuff for them. It’s just the internet and the business, the industry around it is new. You used to have to know somebody. It used to be more of a dark alley where you’d arrange to meet someone, and now you just get advertisements to do it. So it’s easier. Think about how hard it was for you to plagiarize back in the day. We would’ve literally had to read the book and type it, right now you can just copy and paste, but we don’t have any proof that students, individual people are cheating more or less than before.

Kathryn Baron (35:14): One final question then, you’ve discussed quite a few, not necessarily controversial, but definitely unique ways of looking at how to address cheating instead of just being punitive about it. And I’m wondering what can be done from a policy regulatory perspective to help facilitate that? You mentioned some things happening in Australia right now. Is there something that, say in the United States we could start to do?

Dr. Tricia Bertram Gallant (35:44): Yeah. So 17 states do have education codes that prohibit essentially contract cheating. Those codes have to be enforced by somebody, usually an attorney general for the state, those 17 states could just actually start applying the laws as they are written. But really, I think we need a quality assurance and/or accreditation agency to say, academic integrity is critical. You must be attending to it to be an accredited institution. And what does that “attending to it” look like? That has got to be done.

There should be a federal law. Look at the way the FBI went after the college admission scandal, they used mail fraud to go after people who were essentially contract cheating. Those people were contract cheating for their kids to say, give fake personal statements, or fake dossiers, or whatever. And they used federal law to crack down on that. That’s not happening. They’re allowing the contract cheating industry to grow up around us. And as you said, be publicly traded and gain legitimacy. And so we’ve got to start acting in the ways that the UK and Australia and Ireland are, and New Zealand, which says, this is not acceptable. This is undermining a fundamental enterprise of our 21st century, which is education. And we are going to do something about it. We are going to prohibit it, and we are going to go after those who continue to do it regardless.

Listen to the entire episode 003 of The Score with guest, Dr. Tricia Bertram Gallant here.

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