Being an educator in South Africa is truly inspiring, as we facilitate learning and development for our students in the post-school space and assist them in developing their competence (this includes knowledge, skills and attributes) in the professional accounting arena. The development of these competencies is what builds capacity and improves our economic outlook over the longer term.
Being a successful educator begins with an in-depth understanding of our students.
As academics, we have access to a wealth of statistics informing us about our students. One of these statistics indicate that currently 64% of the students at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) are first-generation university students (as they are the first member of their family to be attending a tertiary provider to obtain a tertiary qualification). We are fortunate that we get to know our students even better as we physically engage in various academic activities during the academic programme. We value these personal, face-to-face interactions, as we are able to listen, observe and respond to the needs of our students.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shut-down of access to a physical campus instantaneously changed this physical landscape to a completely virtual one.
Our learners’ realities and personal development needs were immediately amplified. This emotionally charged season has made all of us, no matter our backgrounds, vulnerable to poor judgement and mistakes. More than ever the importance of understanding our students and our collective vulnerabilities became apparent.
The university arranged for data and devices to ensure that no student is left behind. Educators adapted all learning material and guidance and moved to offering this through our online learner management system. All of this took place in an unprecedented short period of time.
Fortunately, as educators over the years we have introduced and embraced blended learning (a combination of face-to-face and online learning activities) which greatly assisted us in the transition to the COVID-19 academic environment. Providing various online resources and guidance required a lot of work and innovation which educators executed with passion!
There is no doubt that this transition, which happened relatively seamlessly and better than most of us expected, has happened because both educators and students did their part to continue with much-needed education in these unprecedented and difficult times. Students’ ability and willingness to adapt must be both recognised and celebrated.
Learning taking place still needed to be assessed. Formative assessment is critical for the student to understand and receive feedback on what they do and do not know and is an important part of their ongoing learning and development.
Online assessments, however, proved to be a challenge. Academic integrity was at risk. In addressing academic integrity, educators need to determine whether the student writing the assessment (with no supervision as they are no longer in a physical exam) is the student enrolled for that course and further they need to find ways to ensure that the student did not plagiarise, cheat or collude during the assessment. Steps therefore need to be in place to ensure that the intended student performed the assessment and that the outcome of the assessment reflects the student’s own work. Education literature mainly considers online assessments as a learning opportunity rather than a tool used for certification. Assessments used for certification need to meet the standards of academic integrity which is traditionally managed through venue-based assessments. The ability to hold venue based assessments therefore disappeared overnight and academics had no choice but to rely on online assessment practices.
The question which naturally arises is: How do we ensure the integrity of assessments while trying to accommodate the varying environments and realities of our students?
Innovative design naturally becomes vital but, more importantly, this question takes us back to the relationship between students and educators. When a student ‘walks through the gates’ of the University of Johannesburg, students and academics enter into a relationship of trust. Students trust the academics to provide quality teaching that will benefit them in the future whilst academics trust the students to engage with the teaching so that it leads to true learning and development. This contract remains, even during remote or online learning.
In as much as the academic team has had to be agile to continue to deliver quality learning material, the students still had to engage with the material to lay strong, solid foundations to develop the required competencies. When this relationship of trust is broken by a lack of integrity during online assessments, the students not only cheat their lecturing team but invariably and ultimately themselves.
So, how do we use this as a learning opportunity to cultivate a deep understanding and appreciation of what integrity looks like for the student?
We knew that we would not gain ground through engendering fear (focusing on the negative).
Every successful organisation has in place, codes of conduct and practices which set out the consequences of non-compliance with these codes.
In fostering a culture of independence and accountability, we expect our students to act with integrity in every assessment. As a result, our responsibility as educators is not to convince students to act in a certain way but to equip them with the tools to enable them to act responsibly and with integrity. To this end, our approach is to teach one to fish as opposed to merely giving one a fish in hand.
With this in mind, the university initiated the following campaigns:
The #IChooseIntegrity campaign was launched to create awareness on what possible integrity lapses look like. The COVID-19 situation presented educators with an excellent learning opportunity that could not be wasted. In addition, we wanted to create a sensitivity in students so that they could identify and apply a critical thought process when confronted with these possible integrity lapses.
Initiatives included the Friends don’t let friends visual campaign which highlighted that it is not in the spirit of Ubuntu to collude in an assessment and send screenshots to a fellow student, and that true friends would not request their friends to partake in unethical behaviour.
The following paraphrased version of Benjamin Franklin’s well-known quote was used to start a conversation about the impact of seemingly small transgressions: ‘Beware of “little transgressions”. A small leak will sink a great ship.’
A declaration of integrity in online assessments and assignments was developed and made available to students.
In a series of ‘What could I have done differently?’ alternative actions were highlighted in situations which may put a student’s integrity at risk.
The above initiatives seek to define a clearer path for students to identify and deal with these obstacles. The responsibility of engaging with these obstacles in a manner conducive to personal growth lies with the student. Guidance on this path is however the responsibility of educators.
By so doing, we empower both educators to continue to guide and empower students to choose and act with integrity by actively choosing who they will be, every day, in every assessment. The intention is to continue to be moveable and teachable in how we facilitate the development of ethical acumen.
The above initiatives on their own will not reduce the opportunity for transgression. A number of other actions need to be coupled with the above initiatives to limit transgressions in the spirit of achieving academic integrity. Other actions include refining the nature of the assessment, limiting time, and identifying and referring cases of possible misconduct to the relevant university structures. The Integrity campaign, however, creates an opportunity for true self-reflection which leads to invaluable knowledge about oneself. There is great value in being aware of one’s vulnerabilities and being equipped with tools to deal with them effectively.
At Accountancy@UJ we made a conscious decision that despite the challenges or risks that an online assessment environment poses, we will to find a way for all students to steer through these trying times.
AUTHORS | Stephanie Venter CA(SA) and Dewald Joubert CA(SA) are both senior lecturers at the University of Johannesburg