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Academic conduct symposium – Towards good academic practice (day 1)

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 27 Nov 2013, 18:15

This is the first of two posts about an academic conduct symposium that I attended at the Open University between 20 March and 21 March 2013.  I'm mainly writing this as a broad 'note for self', a reminder of some of issues that emerged from the event, but I hope it will be useful for my OU colleagues and others too.

The symposium was kicked off by Peter Taylor who spoke briefly about an academic practice project that ran in 2007 which led to the last conference (which coincided with the launch of policies) in 2009.  Peter emphasised the point that the issue of academic conduct (and dealing with plagiarism cases) is fundamental to the academic integrity of the university and the qualifications that it offers.

Each day of the symposium had three parallel sessions which comprised of three different workshops.  Each workshop covered a slightly different aspect of academic conduct.  I'll do my best to present a quick summary of each one.

Keynote: Carol Bailey, EFL Senior Lecturer

Carol Bailey, who works as an English as a Second Language lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, gave a keynote that clearly connected with many of the challenges that the symposium aimed to address. 

One of Carol's quotes that I particularly remember is a student saying, 'I never wrote such a long essay before'.  This is a quote that I can directly relate to.  It also relates to the truth that academic writing is a fundamentally challenging endeavour; it is one that requires time and experience.  To some, the process of writing can be one that is both confusing and stressful.   Students might come to study having experienced very different academic approaches to the one that they face either within the Open University or within other UK institutions - situations where the teachers provide all the resources necessary to complete study, situations where access to information technology may be profoundly limited.

When it comes to study, particularly in distance education, writing is a high level fundamental skill that is tested from the very start of a module.  Students need to quickly grasp the idiolect of a discipline and appreciate sets of subject words to begin to appreciate what is meant to become a part of a 'discourse community'.  It takes time to develop an understanding of what is meant by the 'casual elegance' of academic writing.

There is also the tension between accuracy and personal expression.  When faced with new study challenges where students are still grappling with the nuances and rules of expression, misunderstandings of what is required can potentially lead to accidental academic misconduct.  The challenge of presenting your ideas in your own voice is one that is fundamental to study within the Open University.

Hide and Seek : Academic Integrity

Liz McCrystal and Encarna Trinidad-Barnes ran what was my first workshop of the symposium.  The premise of this workshop was that 'Information is hidden and we need to seek it out'.  Encarna opened with a question, which was, 'what do you understand by academic integrity?'  Some answers included: honesty, doing it right, following academic conventions, crediting other people - all these answers resonated with all the participants.

We were then directed to some group work.  We were asked a second question, which was, 'how do you find information [about academic integrity]?'  Our group came up with a range of different answers.  Some of them were: official notes offered to tutors by module teams, the developing good academic practice site (OpenLearn version), assessment guides (also provided by the module team), helpful colleagues and representatives of module teams.

Another question was, 'when would you expect students to look at or be directed to the information?'  Answers included: ideally part of the induction process, before the first assignment, feedback from an assignment, tutorials (and associated connections with the on-line forums).  One perspective was that issues surrounding good academic practice should be an integral part of the teaching (and learning) that is carried out within a module.

A final question that I noted down was, 'is it clear what academic integrity is?'  The answer that we arrived at was information is there, but we have to actively seek it out - but there's also a responsibility by the university and for those who work for the university to offer proactive guidance (for students) too.

A useful resource that was mentioned a couple of times was Writing in your own words (OpenLearn), which contains a very useful podcast.

Plagarism: Issues, Policy and Practice

The second workshop I attended was facilitated by Anne Martin from the Faculty of Health and Social Care.  In comparison to the first workshop, this workshop had a somewhat different focus.  Rather than focussing on how to find stuff, the focus was on the importance of policies and practice.  Key phrases that I noted included: university and policy context, definitions of terms and the importance of study skills.

On the subject of process, there was some discussion about the role of a university body called the academic conduct office.  The office accepts evidence, such as reports (from plagiarism detection tools), explanations from students, script feedback, whether additional support has been arranged for a student.  An important point was made that students always have the right to appeal.

One of the (very obvious) points that I've noted is that there is no one 'gold standard' in terms of detecting academic conduct issues (there are also different ways of dealing with the issue).  The role of the associate lecturer (AL) or tutor is just as important as automated tools such as TurnItIn (website) and Copycatch. 

Technology, of course, isn't perfect, but technology can be used to highlight issues before they may become significant.

Fuzzy Lines: Determining between good and bad academic practice

The third and final workshop of the day was facilitated by Arlene Hunter and Lynda Cook.  When faced with a report from a plagiarism detection system (such as TurnitIn) it's important to ask the question of 'what has happened here?'  Very often, things are not at all clear cut.  The reports that we are presented with can be, without a doubt, very ambiguous.

During this session I was introduced to some different ways to characterise or to think about evidence that relates to academic practice.  Examples include poor paraphrasing and shadow writing, excessive use of quotations, and the use of homework sites and social networking tools.  (I now understand shadow writing to be where a writer might use different words but uses almost the same structure of another document or source).  I also remember that were was some discussion that related to the university social networking policy.   

In many (it not most) situations there is no distinct line between poor study skills and plagiarism.  A point was: if in doubt, pass it onto the academic conduct office.  On the other hand, it is an imperative to help tutors to help students to focus on developing academic writing and literacy skills.

Plenary

The final session of the day was a short plenary session which highlighted many of the issues that were brought to the fore.  These included the tension between policing academic standards whilst at the same time helping students to develop good academic practices.  There was also some debate that related to the use of tools.  The university makes use of plagiarism detection tools at the module team level and there was some debate as to whether it might also be useful to provide access to detection software to associate lecturers, since they are arguably closer to the students. 

Another challenge is that of transparency, i.e. how easy it is to get information about the policies and procedures that are used by the university.  It was also mentioned that it is important to embed the values of good academic practice within modules and that the university should continue, and ideally do more, to support its associate lecturers when it comes to instilling good academic practice amongst its students.  An unresolved question that I had which related to supporting of students whose English is a second language was touched on during the second day.

All in all, it was a useful day.  Of the two days, this first day was the one that was more closely aligned to the challenges that are faced by the tutors.  What I took away from it was  a more rigorous understanding and appreciation of the processes that have been created to both support students but also to maintain academic integrity.

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