Academic integrity and an irritating wee skelf

Quite the battle has been raging on Twitter* over the past couple of months around online proctoring technologies, with the CEO of one company in particular taking a direct and forward facing role. Over the last few weeks the narrative has taken some disturbing turns and it’s worth stepping back for a moment and considering a larger picture.

I have seen a number of articles and reports of increases in academic misconduct during this pandemic. I’m not surprised. Many institutions have had to flip high-stakes assessments to fully online formats with minimal amounts of time, resource, and support. Human life on planet Earth, let alone Higher Education, has been disrupted. Everyone is time poor, emotionally exhausted, working well outside our comfort zones, and the stakes have never been higher.

Academic integrity research identifies that when the stakes are too high, when failure is too big a cost to bear, or when students feel that what they are being asked to do is manifestly unfair, moral judgement can shift.

“…if students perceive the course work (and related assessment) to be too difficult or time consuming, they are more likely to engage in dishonest behavior… …Another element of fairness is where students believe they have been given insufficient guidance, support, or explanation by academic staff…”

Research also identifies that many technologies which aim to preserve academic integrity start from a position of distrust in students. This is at best unhelpful, and there are power dynamics inherent in the student / teacher relationship which we must be mindful of.

“Invigilation, and other measures to prevent cheating, start from a default position of lack of trust in students. Their use erodes the potential for building trusting relationships between students and staff (Ross and Macleod, 2018). This is not good for feedback, dialogue, and many of the elements educational scholars have highlighted as crucial for good quality education (Ajjawi et al., 2017; Carless, 2013).”

In many ways then, Coronavirus has created a perfect storm of circumstances in which an expedient move in a crisis (rapid adoption of proctoring technologies) exacerbates the very problem it aims to solve. There is mess here that only time will help us wind back from, because the solutions to good academic integrity are not to be found in a magic-bullet technology arms race.

“…there is a need for higher education institutions to ensure a ‘systemic approach’, in which academic integrity is integral to the wide range of institutional activity and processes, including: student recruitment, orientation and induction; policy and procedures; teaching and learning practices; working with students; the professional development of staff; and the use of technology (e.g. text-matching software).”

Which leads me to the main point I want to make, and the thing that I feel most uncomfortable about. I apologise in advance that this is probably painfully obvious to everyone already, but like an irritating wee skelf, I need to get this out.

Technology providers that have visible leaders who scour social media to refute student accusations about their technology will likely exacerbate any feelings of unfairness the students might already be feeling, increase the potential for dodgy moral judgements, and destroy further that bond of trust between the student and the academy. Students will rightly ask why their institution contracts with this kind of company.

Working on the basis of assuming good faith, it would seem to me that this this CEO has probably sunk a large amount of money, time, and effort into building his product and his company. The stakes are high right now for him; failure probably has an unbearable price too.

But a company that trades on claiming to support academic integrity needs to be above the kinds of dodgy moral judgements we are seeing. Recognition of the power balances at play, and some deeper knowledge and understanding of the complexity of academic integrity issues are not an unreasonable requirement. Because at the heart of good academic integrity are the standards to which we hold ourselves, and the quality of our relationships within imbalances of power.


Fawns, T., & Ross, J. (2020, June 3). Spotlight on Alternative Assessment Methods: Alternatives to exams. Teaching Matters Blog.
Morris, E. J. (2018). Academic integrity matters: five considerations for addressing contract cheating. International Journal for Educational Integrity, 14(1), 15.
Brimble, M. (2016). Why Students Cheat: An Exploration of the Motivators of Student Academic Dishonesty in Higher Education. In T. Bretag (Ed.), Handbook of Academic Integrity (pp. 365–382). Springer Singapore.



*Twitter is of course the petty battleground of choice for academia. The field is strewn with barbed references like spent munitions, and many a tweet has been orphaned as threads are cut down in their prime. Serial deleters sweep clear the debris of these bloody skirmishes, and the battle rages on.

3 thoughts on “Academic integrity and an irritating wee skelf

  1. “Academic integrity research identifies that when the stakes are too high, when failure is too big a cost to bear, or when students feel that what they are being asked to do is manifestly unfair, moral judgement can shift.”

    At the UG level I’m sure that is true – at the PG, it is more complex. I used to have a decent sideline writing assessments on MBA courses – to the execs it made perfect sense to sub-contract out the work because economically it made no sense for them to do it.

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