Developing Procedure and Taking Hearings Online
By now, it’s already cliché to say that higher education, and the world at large, is facing unprecedented conditions that are sending much of what we do on a day-to-day basis into upheaval. Academic integrity is especially important to maintain, as ever, with much of our operations going entirely online. This post will go into some of the issues, considerations, and potential solutions to a number of challenges of conducting academic integrity hearings in the online space. While this is particularly pointed towards the “stay at home” nature of the 2020 pandemic, the below set of questions is meant to be as evergreen as possible for online hearings.
- Does your institution allow for policy and procedure changes? What considerations do you need for a new guideline?
Be sure to look into how your institution creates policy, procedures, and guidelines. You don’t want to run afoul of breaking an internal rule in policy creation, from which a student could then potentially point to as a reason that overall procedures weren’t followed and therefore the hearing is invalid. That being said, many systems allow for the addition of internal guidelines that can be adjusted, especially in unusual and emergency circumstances. This likely counts.
In the new procedure, make clear the circumstances in which it is to be used. Once the pandemic is over, you’ll want to go back to “normal,” however, it wouldn’t hurt to have this ready to go for the future should it be warranted. Describe in your procedure how online hearing procedures are activated. Consider language such as, “if the institution’s campus’ facilities are unavailable to staff, faculty, and students for use of a hearing beyond fifteen business days, this procedure will come into effect.”
- What technological issues do you need to address?
When using online meeting software, it’s important to keep appropriate privacy. Many recent higher education news outlets have been describing “Zoom Bombing,” where unfriendly folks randomly guess at meeting numbers or get wind of them through various means, who in turn disrupt meetings. Almost all meeting software allows for the requirement of a password to enter the session. Also consider requiring “waiting room” functionality, where the meeting administrator grants permission to enter the session, and disabling the ability for the meeting to start before the host has logged on. Be sure to set who can share their screen and who cannot, how muting and unmuting will work, and video settings. Requiring webcams of committee members should be a consideration, as their presence can closely replicate a face-to-face hearing through maintaining attention and the seriousness required. At the same time, consider keeping the same policy for recordings as you do for face-to-face hearings. If you usually only keep audio, continue to do that here. Many meeting software allows users to save separate video and audio-only recordings, making for simple record keeping.
- How do you maintain privacy and confidentiality online?
One of the biggest issues facing an online hearing is documentation and confidentiality. Students should have the right to view and keep any evidence that may be used for or against them in their hearing. This also needs to be balanced by their right to confidentiality, and at least in the United States, the Federal Education Right to Privacy Act (FERPA) requires higher education institutions to restrict the sharing of records. This presents a conundrum, as any share screen functionality in a meeting can lead to a potential breach. Anyone in the meeting can take a screenshot of their screen, and hearing members can also take notes that cannot be retrieved or destroyed. One potential solution is to use document sharing services that enables you to restrict who can view a file and restricts screenshots, and after the hearing is completed, to then remove the permissions. Of course, this is not foolproof, as it doesn’t prevent someone from simply taking a picture with their phone.
Another option to address the above issue is a confidentiality agreement. Before a hearing, a form can be provided to members of the committee, denoting how the hearing will take place, to keep an open mind and to be fair in their deliberations, their responsibilities and obligations, and ultimately confidentiality imperatives by not maintaining any records and to not communicate any information they have learned. A digital signature can suffice, to be returned to the appropriate person through email. This, too, does not completely remove all issues, but can reduce them.
Otherwise, you can pretty well keep the rest of the procedure as-is, through each step in the process as otherwise prescribed. Any procedures on use of staff members, document retention and protection, and due process is paramount to maintain. Just like in a face-to-face setting, communicate ahead of time to everyone involved how the process will go, what they can expect, and how to use the software that you’re using. And remember to couch your online hearing under the auspices of, “treat this how you would any other serious endeavor,” including dress and demeanor. It seems to be a good way to go about getting across the gravity of the situation and reducing problems.