Dr. Zeenath Reza Khan, Academic Integrity Researcher and Advocate

Dr. Zeenath Reza Khan is the Head of Integrity in Academia, Digital Space and Beyond Research & Teaching Forum and Assistant Professor of Cyber Ethics at University of Wollongong in Dubai. She has been teaching in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences at the university since 2001. She completed her PhD under full fee-waiver scholarship from University of Wollongong in Ethics and E-cheating among Students which was nominated for the Emerald Outstanding Doctoral Thesis Award 2016. She is currently a Fellow of Wollongong Academy of Tertiary Teaching Excellence (WATTLE), Chair for the upcoming Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond Conference 2020, Head of Australian-UAE Global Challenges Academic Integrity Project and official reviewer for Oxford University Press – Epigeum Academic Integrity Course Module. In her spare time, Dr Khan also manages a voluntary foundation for women and girls that advocates for education, hygiene and rights

I have been teaching for almost 20 years. Early on I found academic misconduct, or simply put, student cheating to be a challenge in classrooms. Whether during exams, or when handing in an essay or report, it seemed students were inclined to try and get that extra mark or added advantage over their peers by using means or sources not ethical. I began to ask myself why do students cheat? Why do they feel the need? How do they view it? How can I help them move away from it?

As easy as these questions look, they were never that straight forward to find answers to. Majority of students want to learn. They want to achieve something. But when that something is a “grade”, the problem begins. This extreme focus on grades stems from societal pressure, that is, pressure from parents, peers, neighbors, culture, employers and so on. We put undue pressure on our students to achieve the “right grade” so that they can get the “right job” with the “right salary”. If students fail to get the grades, our education system rejects them–and this could be a student who “only” managed a 90% as opposed to the high achievers who managed a score above 99%!

Let’s face it. All humans are not created with the same set of skills or interest. While some may find numbers speak to them, others may find passion in music notes. But expecting every single student to get a 99.99% is not only sadistic, but inhuman, to say the least. We take away the focus from learning to earning a grade. In this process, what is the most important value we miss out on instilling in our students? Integrity.

We want our students to succeed. But how do we define the word Success?

As educators, we must remember that we are not only preparing our students for the next level of education or career, but also to be successful, contributing members of the greater community. This means that they shouldn’t just manage to reproduce what they learned but apply the knowledge to make the society a better place. It means they should graduate with values of fairness, honesty, truthfulness, trustworthiness, respect, responsibility and courage. But are we really managing these learning objectives?

Right from primary school, through higher education, parents are eager to help their wards not only pass but get that much-coveted grade. In the process, parents happily complete homework, make projects, hire special tutors to provide cheat sheets and exam questions and more. Teachers are pressured to provide top-class grades and look the other way so that students’ grades can be changed, modified and generally manipulated to suit the needs and expectations of paying parents. From a young age, we are giving a very scary, dark and sinister message to our students – that it is ok to use others’ work and take credit; that it is ok to use any means possible to get that grade.

Academic misconduct is like a virus that spreads and eats at the core value of education. Education isn’t just subject matter. With education must come knowledge, understanding of self and surroundings, of insight and foresight, deciding how to become a contributing member of society, and how to make a difference.

Our students today are the future business owners, ministers, policy makers, world leaders, teachers, even stars and role models. Values we instill in them in our classrooms are the values they take away with them when they join whatever industry they pursue. Ensuring the values are the right ones is a responsibility we bear, all of us – teachers, parents, and management. We want our leaders to make the right decision, no matter how hard they may be. We want the business owners to not cheat their customers. We want our doctors to treat their patients accurately. We want our insurance brokers to be honest. We want our law personal to be fair. We want our teachers to be trustworthy. The list is endless.

Teaching students to take responsibility for their action and to take pride in the work they do by pushing them to reach a state of deep learning  is a step towards developing a culture of integrity. I once met a professor who was quite shocked that we had institutions who hired invigilators to monitor students during exams. When asked, he said his university didn’t have such a system in place. I was super curious and asked what innovative techy device did his university use. To this, he replied none. They never invigilated their students! I was shocked and asked him if he didn’t care if his students cheated. Even now, after all these years, I can hear the laugh in his voice as he said “our students don’t cheat; if they can’t answer a question, they are upset at themselves and come out asking what more they can do to understand those concepts better”. I was quite skeptical, but as we spoke more and discussed his university’s policies, I realized he was not exaggerating!

Imagine a classroom full of students who were genuinely interested to test their own learning and knowledge and got upset that they hadn’t grasped the concepts better. Instead of running after a grade, imagine they left those answers blank only to go accept responsibility, seek out and find the support and help they needed till they did master their knowledge and then satisfactorily tested out.

This isn’t a far-fetched scenario. It is happening across classrooms globally. We just need to open our eyes and minds to the possibility so that we can recognize what needs to be addressed and how, so that we too can achieve this level of integrity among our students, our future leaders.

Integrity in academia isn’t a stand-alone value that only academics should be concerned about. These values are crucial to building character that will dictate how our students behave once they become contributing members of the society. It is past time we the community work holistically to develop such a culture for our students from a young age.

If not now, when?

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