The Impact of COVID-19 on Academic Integrity

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This past week I attended the annual conference of the International Center for Academic Integrity in Portland, OR. Participants shared news stories and websites such as Worldometer Coronavirus, which gives daily updates on COVID-19. During our stay last week, both California and Washington states, which flank Oregon to the south and north respectively, declared states of emergency. And on the last day of the conference, Oregon followed suit, as many of us headed to the airport for our already scheduled flights home.

We followed news stories with interest about large schools such as Washington State University closed to undertake “deep cleaning”. Within days it became clear that the university would not be re-opening for on campus classes, but instead would be moving all spring classes online, effective immediately.

An abrupt shift to online learning at this scale is unheard of in the history of education. No doubt educational historians of the future will look back on this as a pivotal and challenging time in terms of a rapid re-think of education, with online learning being seen as a viable alternative at a time of this global health crisis. Resources such as this one from the Chronicle of Higher education are quickly popping up about how schools and educators can move to online learning quickly.  As one news report points out, there are implications for academic integrity when teaching and learning approaches shift dramatically in a short time.

Proctoring services are available for online exams, but they are not free. Instructors who lack skills and experience with online teaching may find themselves at a loss with how to re-design assessments such as quizzes and tests that they have only ever given in a face-to-face classroom. Students may find themselves confused and frustrated as their learning environments and assignments change quickly and without sufficient communication about what is expected of them.

There is no doubt that institutions that choose to move away from traditional classroom-based learning to online learning quickly will experience growing pains, but hope is not lost. As this article from a group of researchers at the University of Maryland University College reminds us, academic misconduct is not necessarily more prevalent in online courses. It is important to keep the focus on teaching and learning, rather than on cheating, as Tricia Bertram Gallant points out.

In this paper I wrote with some graduate students a few years ago, we offer practical tips to take pro-active approaches to upholding academic integrity. Many of the ideas can be used in online courses.

The key thing to remember is that as educators, our focus should always be on  students’ learning. If you find yourself in a situation where you are moving to an online environment very quickly, it is OK to tell students that you are learning as you go, too. Remind them that you are all part of a learning community together and you are there to support them.

Even if the world is shifting rapidly around us, teachers are in a unique position to encourage students and help them focus on the positive. Convey through your words and actions a sense of calm to reassure learners that you are still focussed on helping them learn in ways that are productive and future-focused. The world may be changing quickly, but the fundamental values that underpin academic integrity can continue to guide us in times of uncertainty:


Have the courage to talk about COVID-19 and how it is impacting teaching and learning at your school. Share facts, and have courageous conversations. COVID-19 presents learning opportunities not only about the virus itself, but also about prevention, and impact. If students are feeling anxious or scared, that is normal. Have the courage to acknowledge the mental health impacts and reassure students that it is OK to feel unsure or overwhelmed. Also, have the courage to share facts. Now is also a great time to talk about fake news and how to look for accuracy in news reports.


In times of crisis may be fairer to incorporate some flexibility into how you assess your students, as well as how you handle the impact of trauma on students’ lives. If learners find themselves quarantined or personally know people who have been affected by the virus, they may be experiencing trauma. Take this into account when you interact with them.


Be honest with your learners if you find yourself in a position of having to teach online for the very first time with no preparation. Sometimes being vulnerable with your students can help them to understand that you are human, too.


As institutions and educational bodies make decisions quickly in a rapidly changing environment, it is important to respect those decisions. Avoid openly criticizing decision-makers who are also trying to do their best in a situation they have never faced before. Instead, honour their decisions by adapting as quickly as you can, as best as you can. Remind students that they also show respect by adapting. Be patient with questions and remind students that you still expect them to conduct themselves respectfully even if learning happens in a virtual classroom.


As an educators, we have a responsibility to lead by example. Remind students of what their learning responsibilities are. Take the time to explain your expectations of them, even if classes are quickly moving to an online environment. Let them know you still expect them to be responsible for their learning, but also show compassion if they are experiencing trauma or anxiety.


It is important to trust that your students are doing the best they can; and so are their parents, school administrators and everyone else. Trust that things will get better. Trust in yourself as an educator.

As an educator, you’ve got what it takes to see your students through this!

Related post:

COVID-19, Contract Cheating and Academic Integrity in Online Courses: What you need to know


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, and the Educational Leader in Residence, Academic Integrity, University of Calgary, Canada. Opinions are my own and do not represent those of the University of Calgary.

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