A year of online learning

In our March edition of Edubytes, UBC’s Associate Provost, Teaching and Learning Dr. Simon Bates joins us as guest editor. He looks back on the year since the university made an emergency transition to fully online classes in response to the COVID-19 outbreak — including how the online environment brought academic integrity and our institutional approach to it to the fore.

Reflecting on a year of remote teaching and learning

This issue of Edubytes arrives at a significant milestone. It has been a full calendar year since UBC had to rapidly pivot — over a period of only a few days — to emergency remote instruction.

Since then, the vast majority of our courses have been delivered entirely remotely, requiring them to be redesigned, rebuilt and re-taught in wholly different ways. It has been an incredibly challenging effort for all: for faculty who lead these courses; for staff and TAs that have supported their development and delivery; and for our students, who have seen so much of the experience of what being a university student is all about so radically disrupted.

There’s hope and a degree of optimism on the horizon though (even if we can’t quite predict exactly when that horizon will reach us over the coming months!) As we contemplate and plan for a return to campus, including a return to much more in-person instruction than has been possible over the last 12 months, conversations are beginning to turn to what the ‘new normal’ may look like.

From what we have learned through this experience, what should we keep? What should we drop and revert back to? What now might be possible that we simply couldn’t have imagined doing in the pre-COVID teaching and learning landscape? These are complex questions for our community to discuss and suggest ways forward.


Assessment design and academic integrity

One area that has been forced into the spotlight very prominently has been the assessment of learning — and more specifically the integrity of those assessments — within the COVID environment.

These issues around academic integrity are not new, but they are now at such a scale that they are the predominant concern. In addition, they have exposed the lack of collective attention we have given to the educative process around academic integrity: articulating what it looks like in specific programs and courses, what is and is not acceptable within the varied course design approaches, many of which require and promote student-student collaborations as elements of peer-supported learning.

The articles below offer different viewpoints and perspectives on a broad and complex series of assessment and integrity issues. This is an area where it seems hard to imagine how it can ever be the same as it was in the pre-COVID world.

New activity in this area is underway, with the creation of Academic Integrity working groups on both campuses, to ensure that this priority for the university community has a focal point for dialogue and consultation.


Academic integrity as an institutional value

In this post from May 2020, Dr. Sarah Eaton, one of the most prominent academic integrity scholars in Canada, foreshadows many of the issues around academic integrity that have since become widely discussed in the academic community. She highlights a number of concerning behaviours being reported by instructors and institutions to address misconduct during the shift to remote instruction, and cautions against approaches that are focused on cheating.

Instead, she emphasizes the importance of cultivating a shared institutional value around academic integrity with responsibilities for both faculty and students. She encourages educators to work with students instead of against them, keeping their best interests at heart while maintaining focus on how best to help them learn.


Approaches at UBC

Faculty and staff at UBC have developed a number of excellent resources to help both instructors and students consider academic integrity in the context of their teaching and learning strategies.

One extensive resource, developed by Peter Ostafichuk in the Faculty of Applied Science, is the Remote Assessment Guidebook. This guidebook has a number of sections that focus on academic integrity, including a misconduct framework that considers the interplay of several elements that can influence the likelihood of academic misconduct on the part of students.

The framework visualizes the interaction between the pressures that students may feel in academic contexts, opportunities that may exist because of the design of a particular assessment (making it easy to cheat), and the rationalization that students engage in to determine that the rewards of misconduct outweigh the risks that they might face. The Remote Assessment Guidebook includes a discussion of specific strategies that instructors can use to enhance academic integrity, with direct reference to the three elements described in the misconduct framework.


The role of Chegg

Michael Feldstein points out that Chegg, a popular platform that enables cheating by allowing individuals to look up answers in its database of 46 million textbook and exam problems, has become such a widespread problem that ‘to Chegg’ has become a legitimate verb in the English language. Chegg, Feldstein notes, differs from some of its competitors as it licenses its homework problem answers directly from the textbook publishers. Thus, a cycle is set up in which publishers, after selling expensive textbooks to students, sell the answers to Chegg. Chegg then sells the answers to the questions to the students, and then universities pay for unpopular proctoring software to try to prevent academic misconduct.

But are there solutions or ways to move forward? In this blog post, Dave Cormier suggests revisiting the way instructors approach their exams — by moving away from “well-structured problems”, and adopting instead “ill-structured problems”.

Well-structured problems are commonly used because they come with a clearly defined question, clear inputs and a well-defined answer (e.g., multiple-choice questions or multiple-answer questions). Ill-structured problems are questions that may be difficult to formulate, or that have different answers possible, with answers differing from student to student. According to Cormier, ill-structured problems can be perceived as ‘real life’ problems, and offer a plausible solution to exponential cheating issues in this unique remote learning age. Cormier promises more to come on this topic, including the difficulties and implications of the educational ecosystem shifting away from well-structured problems.

Enjoyed reading about a year of online learning? Learn about other topics we covered in the March 2021 edition by reading the complete Edubytes newsletter. To view past issues, visit the Edubytes archive.

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