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Maintaining Academic Integrity Online at University of Phoenix

Of all the values instilled in students by higher education, perhaps none is as essential as academic integrity. Unfortunately, students are not inevitably honest. In fact, a majority of students carry questionable ethical habits into college with them. According to a recent survey conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, 64 percent of 30,000 high school students polled admitted to cheating on an exam at some point during the past year. The numbers for higher education continue the worrisome pattern: Researchers at Penn State, Rutgers, and Washington State universities surveyed 5,331 graduate students at 32 universities and discovered that 56 percent of the graduate business students and 47 percent of the non-business graduate students admitted to cheating one or more times in the past year.

The problem of dishonesty does not trouble campus classrooms alone, but reaches far into the realm of distance education. And, while there is no hard evidence that cheating is more prolific in electronic environments than in traditional classrooms, the online classroom presents unique challenges -- and opportunities -- for maintaining academic integrity.

Who knows what really goes on at the endpoint of an Internet connection? How can a culture of trust, respect and fairness be created among dispersed individuals who never see one another face-to-face? Bill Pepicello, president of the University of Phoenix, explains that, for an online education to be of any value – for the resultant degree to have any worth – it’s paramount that everyone acts honorably, both learners and institutions. “That’s why we’ve put in place mechanisms that help ensure our students and our systems are operating with integrity,” says Pepicello.

Dealing with ethical academic issues online is not any more difficult – or any easier -- than in face-to-face courses, notes Russ Paden, Phoenix’s vice president of academic operations. Online, it’s possible for students to fake term papers, cheat on tests, and even have others take their courses. “Such dishonesty occurs on campus as well,” says Paden. Consequently, the university’s student code of conduct makes no distinction between online and on-campus students. In unmistakable language, the code outlines the expectations of the university, insisting that every student’s work be original and his or her conduct above reproach – and that any infraction of the code could severely damage a student’s academic career.

Perhaps the single greatest result of academic dishonesty is plagiarism. Sometimes students inappropriately lift material from others’ work simply out of ignorance. As Paden notes, “Many students come to the university having never learned how to cite sources properly, and have no conception of what constitutes plagiarism.” Other students knowingly plagiarize outright, either from fellow students or by turning to a variety of online sources to appropriate term papers, book reports, and more. “We once found that two student papers were identical,” says Paden, “but rather than cheating off each other, they had both bought papers from the same online source.”

To combat such fraudulent behavior, the university now requires both campus and online students to submit all of their written assignments electronically, instructing faculty to run the papers through an automatic plagiarism checker available online at the university’s Center for Writing Excellence. Moreover, student papers are archived to facilitate crosschecking. The plagiarism checker is not simply a punitive tool, but is also instructive, as students can run their papers through it before submission and  learn whether they have borrowed too heavily from the literature or used proper citation. “Because our course curriculum is standardized across the country, we are watchful for the same papers being submitted in different regions,” says Paden. To help inculcate ethical practices, students are directed to a variety of university tutorials that offer instruction in how to avoid plagiarism.

Another major source of concern in distance learning is cheating on exams. Many online programs use proctoring systems to ensure integrity, whether it’s selecting individuals to act as monitors who then notarize the student’s performance, or requiring that tests be taken collectively, away from home, in a controlled, supervised environment. Yet, for many courses at the University of Phoenix, traditional tests have been replaced by more qualitative assessments, removing the possibility of cheating entirely. Written essays, research papers, and other original work are used instead, which, Paden suggests, often offer a better measure than tests of what students have learned and how they can apply that knowledge.

However, academic integrity in distance learning is not just a matter of student conduct. As Pepicello explains, there is an institutional imperative for integrity, out of which flows the value of a class and the very worth of a school. “To operate without integrity defrauds the students of an open, honest college experience,” he observes. “Every one of our students deserves the same educational opportunities, whether studying online or on campus.”

Notes Dr. Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, vice president of university strategic relations, “Many colleges and universities conceive of distance learning as merely replicating what they do in the classroom. For most institutions this means posting video of professors’ lectures along with classroom notes on a class’s website. But the University of Phoenix treats classroom and online classes as though they are one and the same: In both forms of delivery we offer a high-quality, engaging classes that focus on enhancing learner retention and outcomes with small classes and breakout groups.”

The approach of treating online classes as mere facsimiles of on-campus classes devalues the quality of the education provided to distance learners. “Students online deserve academic opportunities equal to those extended to on-campus students,” Pepicello says. “If a university is to offer distance learning programs, then integrity calls for them to back the courses with the same level of commitment and resources as every other course. That’s why, when we develop a new program, we make it modal agnostic, meaning that each university course can be offered via multiple delivery methods but have the same objectives and the same outcomes whether they are taught in a traditional classroom or online.” Says Pepicello, “We strive for the consistent delivery of online programs that match their on-campus counterparts in terms of the quality of the academic content and rigor of the learning experience.”

From its founding in 1976, the University of Phoenix has grown to become the largest private institution of higher education in North America, with more than 380,000 students both online and at 100 campuses nationwide, and more than 100 degree programs from which to choose. The university’s path over the last 33 years has been marked by constant innovation, from its curriculum designed specifically for working adults to its groundbreaking efforts in the late1980s in facilitating student-faculty interaction via a Wide Area Network. That leading-edge approach harnessed what many regard as the first complete university system (that is, offering full degree programs and complete student support systems) to be offered electronically. The pioneering work would continue through the early 2000s with the digitization of all course and resource materials and the conversion of thousands of texts and reference works into a fully accessible e-library.

As Pepicello notes, despite the large number of students attending the university, classes remain small and conducive to learning, with an average of 15 in an online class. Students are then arranged into three- or four-person learning teams, with courses emphasizing not only the acquisition of knowledge but its application in the ‘real world’ of the workplace. Heightening the experience is continuous communication between faculty and students and among the members of the small study and discussion groups. The goal is to help students academically while at the same time develop those  values and attitudes -- responsibility, critical thinking, dedication to the team, decision making in a group setting -- so important to success in the working world. And the small groups encourage members to be self-policing when it comes to the integrity of each others’ work. Says Paden, “When the successful outcome of a group project depends on the honesty of each member’s contribution, then everyone is more vigilant in ensuring the work is original and represents equal efforts by all group members.”

An institution’s integrity in providing its students with the best of educations extends as well to the faculty selected to lead the online learning. “All of our faculty are appropriately degreed, with an average of 16 years of experience in their field,” says Pepicello, “but that doesn’t mean that they are ready to teach when they approach us for an assignment.” Regardless of background, each potential faculty member participates in a rigorous process of interviewing, training, and mentoring before being certified as an online instructor. And, once faculty begin teaching, there are continuing education workshops they must engage in.

As for tracking the progress of their classes, in many ways the online environment facilitates the process. “Instructors can see who has logged on and off and who is participating fully, and can easily archive and follow the quality of the academic work,” says Paden. What’s more, the university continuously monitors its online courses to make certain the faculty and the institution are delivering the right information in the right manner. Those measurements and assessments drive the improvement of classes and curricula.

“We’re constantly reexamining what our online courses should be doing to prepare people,” says Pepicello, “in order to ensure that each student has access to the knowledge and skill sets they will need to help them achieve on the job and in life.” And by integrating learning goals such as critical thinking and collaboration with an emphasis on ethics and integrity, Pepicello says, “we’re enhancing all aspects of our students’ lives.”