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There is always a conscious choice when it comes to contract cheating, but students are often bombarded with messages that can blur the boundaries between right and wrong, says Dr. Paul Sopcak, MacEwan’s academic integrity coordinator. October 21 is the fifth International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating.

What’s the harm?

October 20, 2020 | Campus Life
Every so often, Bachelor of Science student Alycia Stewart sees a post pop up in her social media feed. “It could be as simple as someone saying, ‘If you’re in a pinch, I can write your paper for you,’” she says. Or a site advertising “plagiarism-free” help under the guise of tutoring or educational assistance.

Stewart, like the vast majority of MacEwan University students, has never taken up one of those offers. But she’s concerned about where those posts and targeted emails can lead for students who are stressed. So is Dr. Paul Sopcak, the university’s academic integrity coordinator.

“Even though there is still always a conscious choice, students are bombarded with messages that can blur the boundaries,” he says. “Companies prey on the vulnerabilities of students. To me, it’s a bit like going to the supermarket and throwing $100 bills on the floor and waiting to see who picks them up.”

The consequences that come from choosing to click or reply to contract cheating posts and emails is something Stewart has seen firsthand. As vice-president, Academic of the Students’ Association of MacEwan University (SAMU), she spent hours this past spring sitting in on academic misconduct hearings and restorative practices conferences. She says it was an eye-opening experience – both for her and for the students involved. 

Taking action against contract cheating

On October 21, MacEwan is joining the global conversation by participating in the fifth annual International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating. Join Alycia Stewart and Paul Sopcak, as they present MacEwan’s restorative practices approach in a 10-minute session to an international audience, during the Twenty Live in 20 — Global Conversations about Contract Cheating event (12:37 to 12:47 p.m.).

 

While it might be easy to think that cheating only really affects the student who does it, that’s not the case, as students who get caught quickly find out, says Stewart.

“Before we meet, we ask students to think about who was harmed by their actions, and in the restorative conferences they get to hear directly from those harmed parties – typically their professor, a faculty member who talks about the greater harm to the MacEwan community and myself or another student who represents the student body.”

 

What’s the harm?

For Stewart, it comes down to the legitimacy of the work students do. “When people cheat, it cheapens what we’re doing and the degrees we are earning,” she says. “When you spend years working on a degree, it should be valuable. We need to take this seriously because it is about protecting our reputation as students and the reputation of the institution we attend.”

Stewart also worries that academic dishonesty threatens the unique experiences students at MacEwan have. “What I love and has been really important to me at MacEwan is our smaller class sizes and how that impacts the relationships we have with our professional faculty members.”

Cheating behaviours, she says, threaten those relationships. “I think instructors have a certain amount of trust for their students, and I’ve seen faculty members really appalled by certain cases. I could see that damaging the rapport we have in those faculty-student relationships, and ultimately the quality of education we have here at MacEwan.”
 


 

I wanted to right the wrong that I had done not only to my [professor] but to myself and the greater school community.
—Anonymous student participant in the restorative practices procedure


 

When rules get broken

While COVID-19 and the move to online learning have thrust academic dishonesty and contract cheating into the spotlight with many universities reporting increases in incidences, Sopcak says the numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story. Faculty members are now more aware of the issue and are looking for infractions in ways they might not have been before, which makes it difficult to compare numbers year over year.

Regardless of the stats, MacEwan’s approach to solving the problem of contract cheating has been progressive – a blend of preventative education for students and faculty and early adoption of restorative practices.

“We focus on education and prevention, not shaming or blaming,” says Sopcak. “We try to help students get the best of their experience, be better students and to be aware of the consequences of contract cheating and why it’s so damaging so that they don't fall into traps that are set for them.”

 


 

I was so stressed at the time to be persecuted and ridiculed for my mistake ... [but] I was given a chance to state my point clearly without blame.
—Anonymous student participant in the restorative practices procedure


 

Since 2018, the university’s academic integrity policy has included a restorative approach. Unlike the disciplinary approach (which is still part of the policy and necessary in certain situations), restorative practices can result in solutions that are scalable, and even creative. But that doesn’t mean the consequences are less serious.

Restorative solutions, explains Stewart, can range from writing a paper, taking a time management course, or attending a session on accurately citing sources to taking a reduced mark in a course or even withdrawal from the university. “Those are really hard things to see happen and it can be very emotional, but we need to be fair,” says Stewart.

 

We can’t police our way out of this 

Addressing academic integrity issues must also involve faculty members, says Sopcak. “We’re not going to police our way out of this,” he says. “E-proctoring and invigilation of exams alone isn’t going to help us. The solution to this problem isn’t simply technological, it’s also pedagogical.”

That’s why the university's Office of Teaching and Learning Services and eLearning are working with faculty members to help restructure assignments and assessments to be increasingly ”cheat-proof.” That can involve asking questions where students must apply knowledge, pulling from large pools of questions, randomizing the selection and order in which questions are presented, setting time limits, showing single questions at a time and more.

The result of many of those changes, says Sopcak, is also assignments that end up being more meaningful.

“Promoting a culture of academic integrity needs to be a community effort, and everyone has a part to play – students when making decisions about their own academic work and in conversations with their profs and peers, faculty members in their teaching and assessment design, and staff in promoting restorative and educational resolutions,” says Sopcak. “It requires an approach based on the fundamental values of academic integrity: honesty, trust, respect, fairness, responsibility and courage.”   

 


 

I was glad that I could come clean and work towards a solution that would be a positive to everyone involved.
—Anonymous student participant in the restorative practices procedure


 

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