Let’s Talk About the Other Pandemic: Academic Cheating

Since the shift to remote emergency teaching and learning as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, there has been story after story in the news about students violating academic integrity.

It’s time we talked about it. Let’s talk about the associate head of school at a New York city upper west side private schools who allegedly tampered with high school admissions tests by (allegedly) providing unsolicited answers to students to help improve their scores.

Let’s talk about how the “unidentified party” who posted fake answers to the Advance Placement (AP) test on Reddit and other social media to lure cheaters taking. It has been reported that the body who administers the test, the US College Admissions board, would not comment on how a “ring of students who were developing plans to cheat” were identified. But someone planted fake answers on social media for students to find. Then that “someone” used those fake answers to identify alleged cheaters.

Let’s talk about the other incidents of individual college professors allegedly posting fake answers to assignments on social media in order to identify students who cheat. Let’s be clear, if this is really happening and it is not some mutated urban myth in which educators are evil masterminds, these would be pretty clear cases of entrapment.

Let’s talk about the professors who allegedly post messages directed to their own students on social media outlining how they’re tracking students’ every move, from their social media posts to their IP addresses during exams. If this is really  happening, then that would be awful. I mean, it would be surveillance to levels that even Orwell didn’t dream up. It might even be considered intimidation, or harassment, or even bullying of students.

Let’s talk about how none of this actually helps students, who are also living through this pandemic along with the rest of us. Let’s talk about how students are reporting they are so stressed out by the conditions under which they are learning and taking exams, that they are throwing up, due to anxiety related to the crisis conditions in which they too, are living. Yes, students. They are trying to complete their academic work in the middle of a global crisis.

I acknowledge there are many caring and dedicated educators who are working hard to support students’ learning, but the increasing number of examples of unethical behaviour among instructors and administrators during the Coronavirus pandemic is not only worrisome, it is downright disturbing. Those educators and administrators who believe that entrapment or other unethical behaviour is “fighting fire with fire” when it comes to academic conduct have forgotten this basic lesson: Two wrongs don’t make it right.

If we are going to ask students to uphold academic integrity, then for the sake of all that is holy, teachers, administrators and learning organizations must lead by example. Educators and administrators who focus on cheating, rather than learning, may not have students’ best interests at heart.

It’s time to start talking about instructional integrity, administrative integrity, and institutional integrity.

A symptom of the academic cheating pandemic is not that students are cheating more, it is that we, those who are responsible for supporting their learning and development, are letting them down. We must keep the focus on helping students to learn. We need to work with our students, not against them.

In the game of “Gotcha!” no one wins.

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Sarah Elaine Eaton, PhD, 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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