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Student discipline: What constitutes cheating in the post-COVID era?

Headlines in recent years have exposed cheating in high schools as well as post-secondary institutions. The approaches students use to try to circumnavigate or even break the rules are increasingly varied, and so, too, are the responses from the institutions.

The college admissions scandal in the United States shone a spotlight on student cheating worldwide when some of those involved were incarcerated.

Canada has seen a proliferation of academic fraud at different levels. Just last year the Law Society of Ontario launched an investigation after up to 150 students were suspected of cheating on their bar exams. And prior to that, some 432 test takers were notified by the State Bar of California that they were suspected of cheating during their bar exams. About 90 per cent of those students were cleared, according to a Bloomberg report.

Has there been a decline in ethics or have technology and more sophisticated investigative tools allowed institutions to detect what was always there? I leave this question open-ended for my readers because I frankly don’t know the answer.

COVID-19 was, of course, a game-changer and institutions could not build rules around the “new normal” fast enough. Distance and hybrid learning are here to stay, and despite the ongoing development of anticheating software, academic institutions had better get their act together to police this conduct judiciously.

While the overwhelming majority of my clients are institutional (I routinely draft and dispense advice on Graduated Discipline Policies) I have taken on a growing number of students as my clients — for whom the stakes are high. Concerned parents, especially those with grown children in professional programs or aspiring to be admitted to such programs, understand what’s at stake here.

Types of academic misconduct

Advancements in technology have proven a virtue and a vice. While processes are now so much more efficient, cheaters have adopted more sophisticated tactics. Long gone are the days of students using whiteout to doctor transcripts.

Cheating can consist of falsifying documents, unauthorized collaboration where individuals share information, plagiarism, impersonation such as when someone writes an exam for someone else, purchasing papers and forging or misrepresenting academic records.

Illicit drug use on campus and the dissemination of hatred are a form of academic misconduct as well. So too is bringing a weapon to school.

Students have also tried to take shortcuts to gain acceptance into post-secondary institutions by trying to pass off false test scores and providing fake proof of residency and letters of recommendation.

What the rules say

How an institution responds to suspected cheaters depends entirely upon the rules they have in place. Institutions also share information about the verification methods to preserve academic integrity and keep on top of emerging trends.

An allegation of cheating at Harvard University back in 2012 arose from similarities that became apparent in 125 exams. Almost half the class of 279 students were investigated and 70 per cent of those were forced to withdraw. Harvard’s policy precluded any collaboration, but many students collaborated in a short answer format.

“Collaboration” during COVID and in the post-COVID era could very well be the most significant grey area. It is hard to define and even harder to enforce. Why? Because educators everywhere expound the virtues of collaboration from grade school onward, through social media networks, and through bricks and mortar organizations that have a mandate to do some good in the world. That does not mean we should not try to build more finite parameters around what collaboration means in each academic program. We should.

At one large Canadian university, a student recently wrote exams for dozens of other students and was subsequently expelled from a professional program. Some of the cheating students were also expelled, although other discipline measures were used as well. A range of discipline existed, depending on the manner in which those culpable responded to the allegations. The College Admissions Scandal was no different, where some high-profile entertainers got more prison time than others for not coming clean and showing remorse sooner.

There is an enormous amount of academic fraud and much of it goes undetected, true. But much of the time, an institution’s policies simply do not “catch” the conduct alleged and students are getting a bad rap. What is clear from the various cases is that the policies of the institutions are paramount, and the resulting rules must be clear and address the various probabilities.

Unsuccessful allegations

It’s important to bear in mind that not every allegation warrants disciplinary action.

I was successful in having a student reinstated into residence in another case involving alleged drug use because the school was concerned about its image and that it might be seen as promoting an unsafe atmosphere. Are schools sometimes contributory? The answer is yes, and they don’t want to “wear it.”

Students facing allegations will often challenge the institution if there is a chance that their academic careers can be compromised. But how the institution responds when the question of cheating is raised is not always correct.

One instructor at a prominent Canadian institution accused more than a dozen students of cheating through unauthorized collaboration. He found that scientific diagrams that did not appear in any textbook were used by a group of students in a take-home exam. But it was later made clear that the instructor, himself, had published those diagrams on a whiteboard and the students were subsequently absolved of wrongdoing.

Much like an employer’s obligation to employees, learning institutions are also required to provide accommodation for a student with an enumerated disability pursuant to the provisions of the Human Rights Code to the point of it creating undue hardship for the organization. But what happens if a student’s disability isn’t obvious?

A recent case I was involved in concerned a student accused of bringing a weapon to school and an alleged hate incident. The behaviour was subsequently attributed to a medical diagnosis and there was no evidence that the student intended to harm anyone. Nor could the weapon be connected to the alleged hate incident. These cases are not always what they first appear to be. While the author (a dedicated father first!) is a huge proponent of gun control and giving the police more tether to crack down on illegal firearms, these cases are truly fact-specific, and the stakes are high for students who face enormous pressures in our modern world. Medical intervention was required and the school stepped up to accommodate the disability. Not only was the student not expelled, but the school was made to accommodate the disability so that learning outcomes would also be met.

Clarity first

Academic fraud generally requires dishonesty or willful conduct. But an institution can easily come to an erroneous conclusion, particularly in the current era where remote learning is more widely available. And if its policies are unclear — or certain behaviour is not expressly prohibited — it can be challenging for the administration when it comes to enforcement.

For those institutions, it can be worthwhile to specifically address their collaboration policies and to review them regularly to ensure they are clear and meet the organizations’ objectives.

I look forward to your comments, criticisms, and feedback! Thanks for reading.

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