We Need to Talk About Integrity

Priscila Zigunovas
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Quick take: Having conversations with students about academic integrity may be the best way to approach the topic in the classroom. In a collaborative and globalized world, with endless information available, digital literacy is a key ability to be learnt.

Austin, Texas

Van Davis, Blackboard’s associate vice president of higher education research and policy, shares his experience as a former history professor and affirms: “We are at the precipice of a shift in terms of how we think of ownership in a digital environment”

“I once taught a class with a large Jamaican student contingent, and I discovered that because they came out of a different educational and cultural environment, they had a different understanding of ownership and collaboration. In the middle of the semester I realized, when an accusation of plagiarism came up, that what I was defining as plagiarism — in this case it was a student that had helped another one write a paper to such extent that I felt like it was no longer that student’s work — the students did not see as plagiarism, because that was not the intent. They saw the behavior as a collaborative venture that was culturally appropriate for them to be helping each other out. That made me really begin to understand how our cultural position could change the way that we think about ownership and attribution of material,” recalls Van Davis.

Early in his career, Davis, who holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in 20th century United States history from Vanderbilt University, spent a decade as a professor and academic administrator. “As a faculty member, I taught writing intensive courses and worked closely with the Composition and Rhetoric faculty. Students performed a lot of writing for my courses and because of that, I had to deal with academic integrity on a regular basis,” tells Davis. “I think what really interests me about the topic now is looking back and seeing all of the mistakes that I made.”

For Davis, although there are going to be students who absolutely know what they are doing is academically dishonest, more often than not students were not doing it deliberately — like the ones in the story above. “They were doing it because they were sloppy, or they made a mistake, or they had a different understanding of what collaboration was. And rather than taking those [instances] as opportunities to have deeper conversations with them that would allow them to reflect on this, I responded in a punitive manner. That is something that I regret when I look back at my teaching career, and something that I would do very differently now.”

Digital Revolution

Having started a teaching career at the beginning of the digital age, Davis is interested in looking at how digital technology changes our understanding of academic integrity. “It is very easy to copy and paste something, just in terms of the technical ease of being able to take material from one place and put it someplace else. But I think that the digital age has shaped the conversation on a more philosophical level because we are seeing cultural shifts take place,” he suggests.

“One example of this is when you look at the culture of remix, or the culture of sampling, whether that be in music, or in architecture, or in art. It is becoming second nature to people to pick pieces of other works and change them to become something new.”

According to Davis, the digital age is also shaping how we think about information. “There is a greater emphasis now on collaboration and we have Web 2.0 tools that enable that. Most employers see collaboration as a critical competency and, so, if you are working on a wiki, everybody is contributing. Somebody else’s words become part of this greater whole that you are all creating. That’s a different way of thinking about information and the creation of knowledge.”

Another example, he says, would be the idea of knowledge in the public commons. “We see the creation of knowledge increasingly as a public participatory event. It’s a very huge shift away from this more traditional western idea of single ownership of information, which, quite frankly, is what western copyright law is based on.”

For Davis, that cultural shift may point to what seems to be a disconnect between students and faculty. “We are at the precipice of a shift in terms of how we think of ownership in a digital environment. Sampling, mixing and remixing are a wonderful example of this. If you can take snippets of somebody else’s work and put them together in a different way to create something that is fundamentally different and more than its component pieces, is that your creation? Or is that a co-creation? Engineers, for example, have to collaborate every day. At what point does the sum of their contributions transcends each contribution and becomes something very different and unique?”

Prevent plagiarism at your institution. Learn how.

Multiple Literacies

According to Davis, some of the best research and writing on academic integrity is happening in the context of multiple literacies. “Learning how to clearly attribute information in the digital age is a facet of digital literacy. Understanding what to do with information, how to use it and what it means in the digital context, that it as much a type of literacy as writing is a type of literacy, or as math is a type of literacy.”

One of the challenges that digital learning programs with internationally diverse student bodies face is the variety of cultures, all of which may have different understandings of originality, creativity, and ownership. 

Digital literacy can be defined as a person’s ability to use digital technology, communication tools or networks to locate, evaluate, use and create information.1 Or, more broadly, as the ability to perform tasks effectively in a digital environment, including the ability to read and interpret media, to reproduce data and images through digital manipulation, and to evaluate and apply new knowledge gained from digital environments.2

However, it could be a mistake to assume that students know how to use technology properly. “We probably should not assume that faculty and students have the same set of values around using technology. For example, students and faculty may not agree on the appropriate use of technology. So we need to have a value conversation as well as a technical conversation about technology usage.”

According to Davis, one of the challenges that digital learning programs with internationally diverse student bodies face is the variety of cultures, all of which may have different understandings of originality, creativity, and ownership. That makes the conversation more complex and nuanced. “In China, for example, the idea of replicating a master teacher’s work is considered the highest form of flattery,” says Davis. “In digital learning, where you obviously have a greater opportunity to draw students from a number of different cultures, those sorts of challenges are going to come up on a more regular basis.”

Davis suggests that research and literature on this subject is starting to shift away from how students are plagiarizing, or how do you catch a student in the act of plagiarizing, and beginning to look more at why these actions are taking place. “Are there cultural reasons at work? Are there different understandings of digital literacy at work? I think that one of the trends in this area is that people are beginning to shift away from the how and talking more about the why.”

Van L. Davis, associate vicepresident of higher education research and policy de Blackboard. Photo: AFP Julia Robinson.
Van L. Davis, associate vicepresident of higher education research and policy de Blackboard. Photo: AFP Julia Robinson.

5 Ways to Promote Integrity in the Classroom

1. Start a conversation. Dedicate classroom time to have a conversation with your students about what academic integrity is and create shared frameworks and values that students can feel ownership in. “If they do not feel that ownership, then they are not going to care, that is human nature,” says Davis. “As faculty, that means engaging students in deeper conversations about what do they think integrity means, why do they think it’s important to have this conversation, how does it connect to their academic and professional careers.”

2. Do not assume guilt. “When you see a student who has clearly copied and pasted something, it is very easy to assume they have cheated, rather than to assume that they have made a mistake, or that they may not fully understand what they have done,” says Davis. Instead, use the incident as a learning opportunity. “Looking back, my academic integrity policy was a zero-tolerance policy. If I found a student had committed an act of academic dishonesty, then they failed the class. I would not do that now. I would instead look at it as an opportunity for some reflective learning — assigning a reflective essay, asking students to actively think about what they have done and why they have done it, and placing it within a larger ethical context.”

3. Focus less on having students replicate knowledge and more on having students apply their knowledge. “It is easier to cut and paste something if you are writing an informational term paper, because all that you are doing is presenting information. It is much more difficult to plagiarize something if you have an application-based project. I think faculty should really think about what types of assignments they are making, because the application of knowledge is a deeper and more complex critical thinking skill, and those are the skills that faculty are going for, not the more rudimentary recitation of information,” says Davis.

4. See integrity as a competency to be developed. “We define competency loosely as knowledge, ability and skills, and integrity is always a cultural construction. As a cultural construction, one can learn what that construction is; why that construction has come to be; and then what it means. For example, what are the skills associated with making sure you are behaving, in this case in an academic environment, in a way that mirrors integrity,” says Davis.

5. Provide students with very clear examples of what is expected of them. “What constitutes plagiarism? What does it mean to appropriately cite this material? In which circumstances do you attribute words or ideas to somebody else and in which circumstances can you assume it is general knowledge? Provide students with very clear examples of what it means to plagiarize and what it means to give appropriate attribution,” suggests Davis. Additionally, do not assume that talking about academic integrity once will be enough. “That is something you have to constantly address through conversations and reminders.”

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* Van Davis is Blackboard’s associate vice president of higher education research and policy.


1 Digital Strategy – Glossary of Key Terms. (n.d.). Retrieved August 24, 2017, from http://web.archive.org/web/20071127010041/www.digitalstrategy.govt.nz/Media-Centre/Glossary-of-Key-Terms

2 Jones-Kavalier , B. R., & Flannigan, S. L. (n.d.). Connecting the Digital Dots: Literacy of the 21st Century. Retrieved August 24, 2017, from http://er.educause.edu/articles/2006/1/connecting-the-digital-dots-literacy-of-the-21st-century


* AFP Julia Robinson.

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