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The Covid-19 pandemic has proved a challenge for all institutions, and especially those lacking pre-existing digital infrastructure and online programs, to maintain quality education. The rapid transition to wide-scale remote learning has amplified a number of issues relating to technology access, equity, and prevalence of academic misconduct. 

Attention is turning to how some students have gained an unfair advantage by engaging in cheating behaviours that went undetected in an online setting. This spotlight on breaches to academic integrity feeds into a broader understanding of the need to raise standards of integrity in schools and higher education institutions to meet a nation’s growing needs, tied to workforce readiness and local research output.

In my conversations with educators at academic institutions across the Philippines and Indonesia, there is a key focus on cultivating work-ready students sought by employers, who are capable of thriving in innovative corporate cultures and tackling societal challenges such as Covid-19. Furthermore, there is pressure on institutions to remain competitive on the global stage through quality research publication that secures reputation and funding. Let’s look at why a strategy to uphold academic and research integrity must underpin these efforts.

The demand for integrity in academic practice and research output

Academic standards are naturally increasing because the world wants students of integrity - that is, students well placed to find solutions for real-world problems. 

Without integrity, we face an erosion of public knowledge and trust. Consider that when you consult the services of a doctor, you assume that their qualifications were earned in a fair and transparent manner to enable accurate diagnoses and treatment. When traveling over a bridge, you trust that the engineer did not cheat in ‘bridge building 101’ so as to ensure public safety, and when colleagues present ideas, you want to be confident they are the result of original and critical thinking. The enduring impact of adopting academic integrity validates professions and strengthens the community as a whole. 

However, in order to meet these expectations, institutions need to proactively teach students the elements of integrity, such as critical thinking, citation and originality - and this doesn’t happen overnight. Indeed, the act of plagiarism as a breach of academic integrity remains a skill set problem for educators and students globally, but particularly in developing countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines. This is in part due to different cultural perceptions of misconduct against Western ideals and benchmarks, but it is also a matter of resource and training gaps when enforcing academic integrity. For example, many institutions in Indonesia and the Philippines lack a centralised function to guide academic integrity protocols, meaning the responsibility falls squarely on already stretched, time-poor librarians and learning departments. 

Institutions can begin to address this dilemma by supporting and training staff with resources to build academic integrity principles into course content and ensuring that students learn in a culture of integrity that promotes positive academic habits. Investing in integrity-based software is a highly effective way to reduce manual efforts in identifying integrity breaches, however detection is only half of the story. Teaching integrity goes beyond a similarity score or percentage, to include formative lessons and feedback that turn misconduct such as plagiarism into a relatable, teachable moment for students.

In a higher education environment with these mechanisms in place, research can also be produced and published with integrity, based on standards that are on par with the global community. From what I’ve observed, it’s a really exciting time to see these changes taking shape in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Adapting to the future of assessment and student needs

Now that the dust has settled in terms of overcoming the shock and panic over the remote learning experiment, we can reflect on 2 years of hard work and consider a fundamental question: what are the next steps for education providers? The first point I’d make is that we should expect COVID-19 to remain prevalent in communities across Southeast Asia, meaning we cannot just revert back to traditional teaching and learning methods. 

I believe the future of assessment is a hybrid world, and that it is important for academic institutions to proactively look at making permanent changes to teaching and learning modalities to ensure that student learning and assessment can continue safely without disruptions. That means creating courses that incorporate a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning, with continuous assessment that can be done online or offline. It also requires adopting the right technology to support blended learning, which will be a key consideration for institutions in a post-pandemic world.  

The other impetus for maintaining innovation in how we teach and assess students is the demand from industry. According to the World Economic Forum, developing and emerging economies are facing talent shortages due to outdated curriculum that is not moving with the times by embedding digital literacy and related skills that are becoming vital to globalised economies. Case in point, Indonesia's secondary and university graduate skills have declined by 1% to 5% between the years 2016 and 2020.

Speaking of graduating students who have met the required learning objectives, universities have learned important lessons during remote learning about the need for assessment security online, to ensure a student has truly earned their grades and not enlisted prohibited materials or outside help. Institutions should be looking at long-term planning to be vigilant about how academic integrity unfolds in online settings, including use of systems and technology.

The main areas I think all universities should focus on, are as follows:

  • Assessment design that ensures learning objectives are met without unfair advantage 
  • Equity and equality, because in Indonesia and Philippines, there will be students lacking internet access, and allowances must be made so they don’t fall behind. 
  • Investment in systems to alleviate educator workload and ensure rigour and quality is upheld across the university ecosystem, including postgraduate research.

At the end of the day, academic institutions can't “‘keep up with the Joneses’” when it comes to making changes to assessment and ensuring academic and research integrity. Although a universal standard is important, each university has a diverse lecturer and student population as well as unique budget constraints, which will ultimately determine their path to addressing academic and research integrity issues.