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Guardian Ninjas of Integrity (And How We Got There)

We teach at Western Governors University (WGU) which has over 110,000 students from every state in the country. Recently, we were part of a student conduct board hearing with a student who allegedly plagiarized four papers. Ava (we’ll call her to protect her identity), was an English Language Learner who was born outside of the U.S.

Here in the US, we know that original work is expected in academia, although it is acceptable to use appropriately cited sources to support one’s points. However, in Ava’s home country, expectations for citing sources were vastly different, and when she realized the implications of violating our academic policies, her tone of voice spoke the universal language of worry, confusion, and insecurity. We had failed Ava as educators, because the support she needed to follow the rules about proper citation was not available. We had to innovate a way to dismantle those barriers.

But first we had to ask, why was there a lack of confidence and overwhelming confusion in the first place? WGU’s student body includes scholars from diverse educational backgrounds—many of them are older students who have had unsuccessful attempts at college in the past. In some cases this leads to poor self-confidence, and occasionally we deal with a subsequent issue in poor academic integrity.

Jessi BullockJessi Bullock

We speculate that as humans we fear failure, so we seek aid from other sources. For some students, this means taking text from other sources, incorporating it into their own papers, and then claiming it as their own work. Plagiarism may or may not be deliberate cheating. While it is refreshing to learn students like Ava are not willfully cheating, intent is not always measurable in academia. We must cut through the emotion wrapped around intent, and instead focus on originality.

Decades of academic tradition overshadow our every step when we enter an institution of learning; the lens of tradition biases our vision every time we pull out an electronic device to tackle coursework. Just because we have done things the same way for years, even lifetimes, is it the best way to learn? Absolutely not. As educators, we know we must meet students where they are in all aspects of academia, including addressing plagiarism and authenticity concerns.

How do we do this? We create essential, just-in-time student resources that engage students in academic integrity. Ava became the human face behind English Language Learners who may need assistance understanding WGU’s academic culture. Inspired by Ava, we created an interactive learning module specifically for English Language Learners, addressing cultural differences and reinforcing the need for original coursework. We then openly marketed this module to our students.

As was standard practice prior to the student conduct board hearing, Ava was contacted by a support specialist, a WGU employee who works with students over the phone and on digital screen-sharing sessions, thereby clarifying academic authenticity requirements. At the student conduct board hearing, we asked Ava what she discussed with the support specialist. She dutifully recited covered items, but again, her tone of voice exposed complex misperception.

This was the critical point of understanding what needed to be changed. We asked ourselves, how do we change the simple recitation of rules to truly understanding the rules? We needed to meet Ava where she stood, even as a single student, because we all know that for every student with a question, there are several more grappling with a similar one.

Christine GeeChristine Gee

We took what we learned from Ava’s case and we innovated again. It used to be that students met with a support specialist on the phone to discuss plagiarism concerns by referring to a Turnitin report in hand (Turnitin calculates the similarity between a student’s paper and sources it matches). While the phone calls and the Turnitin report are essential, we had to differentiate and broaden our scope. In response, we included the option for the support specialist to record their discussion and walk-through of the specific plagiarism concerns in the student’s paper. With the recording, the student could review and re-review the presented concepts as often as needed. Ultimately, we gave students even more options so they could influence the process of composing a universal melody of understanding. And most importantly, the melody was student-centric while the student proudly waved the baton.

A word of caution is in order here. Cheaters are becoming more innovative and more aggressive so we must learn from Ava’s example. First, we urge our colleagues in academia to create a safe and successful environment for all students, partnering with them to support a culture of integrity.

Second, we urge proudly creating a brand of integrity befitting your university. As a first step, assemble a team of people who protect academic integrity and give them a name! WGU’s Academic Integrity team is nicknamed the Guardian Ninjas of Integrity, which promotes our culture of learning and integrity and also reflects our personality. We protect the validity of competency and degrees as we mentor and support our students how to submit original, individual work. We are proud of our efforts.

Finally, stand with us by joining organizations that promote academic integrity. We hope more institutions will join the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) to collaborate and build integrity in academia. As membership grows, we can collectively better understand the specific needs of individual students and share our best practices.

So where is Ava today? She worked with faculty members to develop and learn from her mistakes and move forward productively. The point is not that she once plagiarized. Rather, now she has remediated and demonstrated competency! As humans we are not perfect but molded from that crucible of imperfection to have a clearer perspective of the better route to follow. And, the better route more adeptly equips us to act with integrity for ourselves and academia.

Christine Gee and Jessi Bullock are part of the Guardian Ninjas of Integrity team at Western Governors University where they take a proactive and personal approach to helping students upholding WGU’s standards of integrity.

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