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New technologies and ideas in the world of academic integrity have always brought with them both opportunities and challenges.

But, as we move through the education space in 2018, we find ourselves at something of a crossroads. New ways of teaching are rapidly changing how students learn and what they learn. With this rapid advancement comes serious new questions of academic integrity that we haven’t seen before, nor do we know exactly how to address them.

Schools around the world have embraced a variety of new tools, but some have faced more woes than wins. Educators now have a list of new questions to consider: How does this technology affect student learning, both positively and negatively? How can students exploit or take advantage of these tools? What are the long-term benefits or unforeseen consequences of adopting this technology?

Nowhere is this more evident than with the rapid growth of online and distance learning.

The Online Learning Challenge

One of the key changes in the academic landscape over the past few years has been the rapid growth and acceptance of online learning.

According to a study by the Babson Survey Research Group, even as enrollment at private for-profit schools felled, online enrollment at non-profit and public schools ballooned with private non-profit schools seeing an annual growth of over 11 percent over the previous three years.

Currently, 25.8 percent of all college students take at least one online class with 12.5 percent taking online courses exclusively. There can be no doubt that online courses have gone mainstream.

However, even though online courses have grown in popularity, some faculty members remain wary: In another Babson survey, only 29.1 percent of chief academic officers reported that their faculty accepts “the value and legitimacy of online education.”

Part of this is because of integrity issues, whether real or perceived.

Services have popped up to let students hire someone to take their online courses for them and concerns over cheating and plagiarism remain strong.

But, even without these particular concerns, when a student and an instructor aren’t in the same room, it raises new integrity issues. While many schools are working on ways to verify who is actually taking the course, such as blocking VPNs and IP addresses outside the country, there’s a great deal of work to do in this area.

Much as with the internet in the late 1990s and the concerns over copy/paste plagiarism it brought with it, online courses have a series of significant integrity challenges that have not been fully addressed, even as the courses become more and more mainstream.

Plagiarism for Hire

However, it’s not just online learning where there are continuing shifts in integrity. Plagiarism is another key area where the sands are constantly shifting.

The big story over the past few years has been all about essay mills. They have received the lion’s share of attention from schools and have even been the subject of legislation in the UK, New Zealand, and Ireland.

Though essay mills have been around for decades, they’ve seen something of a resurgence in recent years. Buoyed by the internet, which makes it easy to pair students with willing authors, and a fear of plagiarism detection services, these services have found a new life.

But, while essay mills may capture the headlines, they’re only a small part of the contract cheating landscape. According to one study, where 10.4 percent of students admitted to using a professional service, 60.2 percent have said they used a current or former student.

Regardless, the rise in contract cheating is partly owed to the success of plagiarism detection tools. Unable to copy and paste with immunity, students who want to take unethical shortcuts are finding other, less efficient ways to avoid writing their papers.

Still, the technology war is very active there as well. Earlier this year, Turnitin announced that they were teaming with 7 colleges to create an authorship investigation tool specifically targeted at contract cheating.

Contract cheating is an area that will be a major focus of 2018 and likely beyond.

Bottom Line

When it’s all said and done, the constant march of technology spares no one. This includes academic integrity.

However, in academia there is a constant trend: Schools in a rush to provide the best educational experience they can by incorporating new technologies or advancements without pondering how they might be misused, face harsh realities later.

Conversely, students are infinitely creative with their shortcuts and much of academic integrity is a matter of trial and error. Students try solutions, share what works, then use it until schools grow wise and shut it down.

Whether it’s sharing answers on social media, using automated paraphrasing tools or hiring professional test takers, students under severe pressure or those who don’t care about the rules, will try whatever they can to delegate their work.

Academia has to evolve with them, even when students resort to using slightly older techniques, such as essay mills. However, this evolution isn’t going to get easier, as the pace of new technology is not slowing down.

Instead, instructors and administrators need to get ahead of the curve, think like their students, and consider the possible misuses of a technology before they implement.

It may not be easy and it likely won’t be precise, but it will, at least, prevent schools from getting caught flat-footed when they face the next big threat to academic integrity.