• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Online Cheating

It's not just here.

May 10, 2021
 
 

Community college VPAAs from around the state meet monthly to discuss various issues we all share. In recent years, those issues have included how to handle new state legislation capping associate degrees at 60 credits, and subsequently addressing possible reductions to gen ed to compensate for the reduction to 60 credits. This year, for the first time, academic dishonesty has become a topic.

In one sense, it’s not controversial: nobody is taking a pro-plagiarism position. (I imagine that pro-plagiarism picket signs would be easy enough, since you could just copy others’ greatest hits. “Whip Inflation Now!” or “Eat at Joe’s” would be weirdly appropriate.) But shared frustration doesn’t necessarily indicate an easy answer.

We’ve all noticed a substantial uptick in reports of academic dishonesty since moving to remote instruction. What that means, and what to do about it, are less obvious.

My own college, and every college at which I have ever worked, has a formal process by which a professor can file a dishonesty charge against a student. The formal process serves three major purposes. It enables centralized recordkeeping, so we can differentiate between a first offense and a third offense. It ensures evenhanded application of penalties for similar offenses. Finally, it allows students who believe they were falsely accused to defend themselves to impartial third parties. As an administrator, I look at that and I see virtues such as due process and consistency.

But I’m under no illusions that the majority of cases actually get reported. There’s always the option for professors and students to resolve the issues informally. In some cases of sloppy citation, for instance, it may be more appropriate to treat the issue as a teachable moment than as an offense. I rely on the professional judgment of the faculty to decide when the case is worth escalating.

I don’t know how many cases like that go unreported. That’s because they go unreported. (It’s a variation on the old teacher’s joke while taking attendance: raise your hand if you’re not here.) The number that gets reported has been pretty consistent from year to year -- until 2020. At that point, both here and at colleges across the state, the number jumped.

I’m not sure if actual cheating is more prevalent, if it’s just easier to catch or some combination of the two. The last possibility seems likeliest, though. Unlike Dartmouth, which got tripped up using Canvas in ways that Canvas was never meant to be used, we use the Respondus lockdown browser as the primary anticheating technology for remote testing. (In math, we hire actual live adjunct faculty to watch students take tests over Zoom, due to the insistence of our single largest transfer institution.) Respondus records video, with sound, of students taking tests, and it flags moments in the recording during which the student is talking or looking away. Professors can then go to those moments to see what’s going on.

A single red flag probably doesn’t mean much; a student may have sneezed, for instance. The key is that professors need to review the flagged moments before bringing charges; the mere presence of a flag doesn’t prove anything by itself. Many of the recent integrity hearings have involved watching extended snippets of video and interpreting them. I’ll admit that I remember just enough Foucault to get squirmy thinking about the panopticon, but here we are.

I suspect that there’s an element of opportunism in some of the new cheating. Students may feel emboldened by the familiar surroundings and may underestimate just how much a webcam actually sees. Or they may just not take the class quite as seriously as they would a traditional class. Either way, it’s disheartening.

I’d like to believe that all cheating could be prevented through clever teaching techniques and greater student engagement, but I just can’t. As James Madison pointed out hundreds of years ago, if men were angels, no government would be necessary. But they aren’t, so it is. Yes, it’s a great idea to structure assignments and assessments in ways that discourage cheating and reward engagement; I’m all for it. But I refuse to take every instance of dishonesty as a sign of faculty failure. Some people will take shortcuts if they think they can. It’s just that now they have cameras on them.

We can’t get back to campus fast enough …

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