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ALT Conference presentation: The Panoptic Gaze and the Discourse of Academic Integrity

5 October 2021 Posted in: Articles By: Technology Enhanced Learning Team

During the recent Association of learning technologists conference I attended an interesting presentation that centred around an upcoming publication entitled Critical Digital Pedagogy in Higher Education: Broadening Horizons, Bridging Theory and Practice (Edited by Suzan Koseoglu, George Veletsianos, Chris Rowell,

The book explores the shifting environment of higher education and focusing on a number of themes such as the rising cost of education, education as a market, the rise of technology within education both as a means of combating cuts and enhancing value and the role of external technology businesses within HE.

Matt Acevedo, Director, Learning Innovation and Faculty Engagement at the University of Miami, presented a preview of his chapter within the book: The Panoptic Gaze and the discourse of academic integrity, which explores how academic integrity is defined, enforced and how responsibility is framed within institutions.

Establishing  academic integrity as “Shorthand for responsibilising students to act in ways that are expected by the institution… doing the ‘right thing’ … as narrowly defined by the institution”, Matt likened the use of monitoring technologies (such as virtual proctoring – the video monitoring of students during live exams) to the Panopticon – a type of prison proposed by Jeremy Bentham that allowed a central guard to monitor any single cell of a prison building from the core without the inmates knowing whether they were, or were not, being watched, thus compelling them to act as if they were being monitored even when they were not. This was a logic that was later extended by Michel Foucault  to contemporary society and power relationships in the modern world.

Matt went on to suggest that this mirrors the relationship between students and universities in the context of academic integrity and that the means by which institutions use to enforce academic integrity create the high-stakes environment which drive students to feel the need to cheat. He suggested that the discourse of academic integrity has been framed for many years in terms of cheating being the or one of the major issues problems within education, that it is motivated by student immaturity or a lack of commitment, that it is framed as a battle and in violent terms of struggle and that the discourse places academic integrity as at-odds with students and their moral failings – framing students in terms of criminality. This was posed as a “fundamental attribution error” – a tendency to over-emphasise dispositional or personality-based explanations for behaviours observed in others, rather than situational or environmental factors (issues such as the precarious nature of student funding, the pressure loans and maintaining scholarships etc…). Returning to Foucault, Matt argues that just as prisons themselves create the conditions that lead to the formation of criminal organisations, releasing inmates into conditions that leave them unable to find legitimate employment and perpetuating the criminal element, the use of high-stakes assessment and the employment of invasive technologies in service of academic integrity are doing more to create the environment that causes cheating than they do to address it.

In response to this, Matt suggests that institutions should reframe the issue of academic integrity and invert the responsibility of the creation of integrity back to the institution. He suggests that institutions should seek to design and build learning environments that do not cause or motivate cheating, and that rather than relying on “panoptic” technologies that restrict and monitor students, limiting their behaviour, there should be a shift towards technologies that allow students to expand what they can do – technologies that allow them to collaborate and be creative and expressive.

Concluding his talk, Matt shared a number of strategies that he has found have promoted a sense of positive academic integrity and practice within his classes:

  • Ungrading: The idea that not all assignments need a grade and placing the emphasis on providing detailed narrative feedback on all assignments, emphasising areas of improvement and inviting resubmission of assignments, rather than relying on grades don’t always provide great feedback and have a role in causing anxiety and feelings of competition within students. Focusing on feedback as a conversation can provide a safe space for students to express themselves and try out new strategies without fear of getting bad grades.
  • Honouring a plurality of experience: Recognising that all students come to the class with different backgrounds, areas of expertise, different interests and different goals and that we therefore cannot expect all students to get the same things out of their classes. This means making space for students to make their own paths, allowing students to engage and demonstrate knowledge in different ways, allowing them to engage creatively, potentially disposing of rubrics and marking criteria altogether and allowing students to create their own expectations and express themselves their own way.
  • Embrace open-endedness: Utilising assessments that focus on reflective, analytical and evaluative thinking, rather than relying on clear-cut, MCQ-style high-stakes exams which rarely reflect reality.
  • Enabling students as creators: Utilising technologies that facilitate creative means of expression in response to assessments, such as audio or video response, documentary style projects, live and interactive presentations, websites or other forms of media. There are innumerable ways that technologies can facilitate creative expression in assessment which can provide meaningful opportunities for students to express their knowledge and themselves.

I found Matt’s presentation to be one of the highlights of the conference as it really made me take a step back and reflect on how the issue of academic integrity is framed and how our views of students within the issue has the potential to be very harmful. His emphasis on creating a culture of integrity through understanding and facilitating expression rather than through rules, regulations and monitoring of students.

I also think that whilst some of his strategies may not be plausible for all learning contexts – for example where external certification requires certain formats of exam – they can help us to shift the discourse from terms of a struggle against students to one of shared responsibility and consider how, as an institution, we can foster a culture of academic integrity, rather than simply look to enforce one through technologies and monitoring.

Matt’s presentation was part of a slightly longer presentation on the book as a whole and that presentation can now be viewed free, by all, on YouTube.

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