Online Cheating And Virtual Courses
With the wholesale migration to distance learning in response to COVID-19, colleges and universities are paying more attention to online cheating than ever. Faculty continue to rely on their plagiarism and exam cheating detection systems, but they’re having to learn new ways of managing the vastly increased number of students studying from home. And administrators are looking at whether their academic dishonesty policies sufficiently address the challenges of mass online learning. Duffy Law’s Student Defense attorneys have already helped students in this new environment who have been accused of cheating under unusual conditions arising, for example, from a professor’s misunderstanding of the technology being used and/or the school’s problematic policies.
If you have been accused of cheating in an online course or exam, do not respond until you have carefully read your school’s policies (and any modifications made since the coronavirus pandemic) to understand what you are being charged with and what the school must prove to find you responsible for violating the policy.
Here are some of the most common questions pertaining to online cheating and academic dishonesty policies in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.
What should I do if I have been accused of cheating in an online course or test?
If your school has charged you with violating its academic dishonesty policy, it is very important that you recognize immediately that this puts you in an adversarial position with the school. As a result, the best thing you can do is collect as much information as possible, and not say anything to anyone about the situation. Whether you are charged with cheating on a test online, or plagiarism, or not properly adhering to the technology requirements while schools are completely online, it is vital to read and understand the institution’s policy regarding academic misconduct.
This policy may have been modified since the outbreak of COVID-19 to incorporate more specific policies regarding online participation. In addition, the syllabus for your specific class may have been altered by the professor to include additional responsibilities on the part of the student for remote learning and the prevention of academic dishonesty. These charges are very serious and can result loss of credit, which in turn can negatively impact your transcript, class rank, graduation timeline, etc. And they often result in suspension or expulsion. An academic dishonesty defense attorney with experience in higher education code of conduct violations can help you understand the charges against you, and help you properly defend yourself through the administrative process
Are there special rules in place for online cheating during the outbreak of COVID-19?
At this point, it does not appear that many schools have modified their academic honesty policies to accommodate the transition to online learning due to COVI-19. That being said, most institutions can demonstrate that individual faculty members have modified their course syllabi to accommodate the switch to distance learning. This may include the engagement of online proctors for exams or plagiarism detection technologies, and/or the processes by which homework, quizzes, exams, and research papers are completed and submitted. When in doubt, you should assume that the academic honesty policy found in the student handbook applies equally to online classes during the pandemic, and you should expect that this policy will be applied in any conduct proceeding that alleges a violation of online misconduct. There will be situations where students encounter unique situations due to the extreme circumstances in which case an argument can be made for why the policy should be applied differently or that sanctions should be modified.
Can I use my lack of technical knowledge as a defense against an accusation of online cheating?
With the all-encompassing presence of technology in most students’ daily lives, this can be a difficult defense to raise. However, the transition from in-person education to virtual learning has happened so suddenly due to the pandemic that in some cases both faculty and students are neither adequately prepared nor properly equipped. Depending on the specific circumstances of your case, an argument may be able to be made that the class syllabus did not sufficiently spell out the rules that the student must follow in taking an exam remotely, or that an online exam should not have been timed due to the unnecessary stress that causes the student when using technology, or that there was an inability to access a professor for clarification on an action that is later deemed to have been improper. It is very important that your position be framed properly before you participate in any formal investigative or disciplinary proceeding.
What is my school’s responsibility to define online cheating?
All institutions consider the issue of preventing academic dishonesty as paramount in the education of its students. The first line of defense is most certainly creating a community of integrity through the publication and enforcement of what is often called the honor code. This honor code sets out the school’s expectations of both the faculty and the students in the academic setting, including remote learning. This honor code often serves as a contract between the student and the institution, and further enhances and supports any code of conduct policy governing issues such as plagiarism and online cheating. Although the school does maintain the responsibility to set out clear expectations and specific guidelines that must be followed, the student remains equally responsible to be aware of, to understand, and to abide by, any published honor code and written policy. This is equally true for distance learning and virtual classrooms.
What are the most common types of academic dishonesty online?
The three most common online violations include plagiarism, cheating and identity misrepresentation. Plagiarism has existed as a violation long before the internet existed; however, access to publications and related information online has made it much easier for students to engage in this practice, sometimes inadvertently. There are also forms of more overt plagiarism such as buying an entire paper online and representing it as your own. However, the engagement of numerous plagiarism detection technologies allows schools to more easily determine if someone has been dishonest in the presentation of their material.
When considering the general topic of cheating, the temptation is thought to be greater with online learning because there is no proctor in the student’s presence to prevent this type of violation. Faculty worry about issues such as the use of alternative electronic devices to obtain answers and/or the sharing of information between students through alternate devices. These issues have also been addressed with technology that establishes a bank of questions that are distributed in varying forms to different students in the same classes, or by creating more application type questions that require a student to analyze and explain their answer. Finally, identity misrepresentation can vary from hiring another person to write your paper or take your exam, to hiring someone to complete an entire class online. Again, most institutions have developed rigorous identity authentication programs and procedures to protect against this type of violation.
What will happen if I am found responsible for violating my school’s academic dishonesty policy?
The consequences for online cheating can be devastating to your academic career and can range from loss of course credit, to loss of scholarships and grants, to suspension or expulsion from the institution. It can also include a notation on your academic transcript that may never be removed and will likely interfere with your ability to gain admission to another institution or even gain future employment. The student handbook will almost always list the range of sanctions that may be imposed upon a student who is found responsible for violating the academic honesty policy. These sanctions will depend on the specific facts of your case as well as the posture of the faculty member or any other individual that has alleged that you violated the policy. The severity of the possible consequences is the reason that you should immediately seek assistance to navigate the process if you are charged with cheating. It will be much more difficult to reverse the imposed sanctions once an investigation and hearing process has been completed.
Should I trust that my school wants to help me resolve this issue without a hearing?
Although it will be very tempting to want to “get it over with,” it is very important that you realize that once you are charged with online cheating, you are immediately in an adversarial relationship with your school. An administrator may tell you to just “tell the truth about what really happened, and everything will be okay.” Yet, too often, when students do describe what happened from their point of view, they suddenly find themselves hit with severe sanctions.
The unprecedented circumstances created by the coronavirus pandemic may allow for a defense that you will not have thought of if you rush into trying to bring the matter to a close. Make sure to take the time to hear and understand the charges against you, to read and be fully informed about any applicable code of conduct policy and the respective procedure that is to be filed, to appreciate the possible sanctions that can be imposed upon you, and to consider what advice you need to seek before engaging in the process. Although an informal process may ultimately be the best way to resolve an incident, you should not participate without full knowledge and complete understanding of the policy, the available processes, and the possible outcomes.
What information should I save and produce if I am accused of online cheating?
If you are facing a charge of violating your institution’s academic integrity policy, it is important that you save any and all documentation that you may have on your computer, phone, tablet, social media account or any other electronic device. Although some of this information may ultimately be protected as attorney-client work product if you hire a lawyer to assist you, it may also be used to help you defend yourself. Someone who is experienced in the handling of these matters will be able to analyze the information to determine how it can be best used to defend the specific allegations in your case.
Institutions are permitted great leeway in the application of their policies and procedures and you should fully understand what is permitted as evidence, or a source of defense, before you participate in any proceedings. Even the smallest of inconsistencies on the part of the institution, if recognized and identified, can serve as a defense to the allegations against you. You should NOT turn over everything (or even anything) you have to the institution without seeking experienced advice, as that information can also be used against you by the institution.
Can I claim my disability as a defense against a charge that I cheated in an online setting if I never informed the school that I had a disability before the school moved to virtual learning?
Yes. Even if you have not previously notified your school about your disability, there are ways those disabilities can be used to defend your case or mitigate sanctions. The emotional and psychological stress created by the covid-19 pandemic and the resulting complete transition to online learning may well exacerbate a student’s learning disability and/or mental health condition. There are many laws in place to support and protect students with disabilities, and it is imperative that you make sure that your school is aware of any disability that you have. Typically, students with learning disabilities are more familiar with the process they must follow in order to obtain assistance from the school to accommodate their disability because they have often been dealing with these processes for much of their academic career. It is also likely that these students have special accommodations for online academics such as untimed exams or faculty assistance with technology.
If you have depression or anxiety, or some other mental health challenge, you may not have realized that you are entitled to support from the institution due to this disability, and therefore not previously reported it to the school. If you have not previously sought accommodations and you believe that your disability in some way contributed to the allegation that you are facing for online cheating, you should immediately contact the disability office at your institution and seek the necessary modifications that you are entitled to.
Should I still hire a lawyer if my school’s Code of Conduct says I am not permitted to bring a lawyer to the hearing?
Most institutional policies will prohibit the presence of a lawyer in the actual student conduct proceedings. However, this does not mean that you are not entitled to have a lawyer. In fact, because you will be facing the proceedings on your own, it will likely be even more important that you have a cheating defense lawyer prepare you for any meetings, interviews or hearings, help you collect relevant evidence, and assist you in preparing any written statements. The policy will likely allow you to bring an “advisor” with you to serve as an emotional support person and to help with understanding the process, but this individual will not be permitted to speak at any proceeding.
A lawyer can meet with your advisor with you to advise on how to best handle a formal proceeding and how to best provide support. This can include, for example, something as important as educating an advisor to recognize when you might need a break in the proceeding. A lawyer can also play out various scenarios with you prior to the proceeding taking place, and help you better anticipate how to respond to unfamiliar situations. And ultimately, if the proceeding does not result in your favor, a lawyer can help you identify and pursue any legal options that you might be entitled to pursue under applicable state and federal laws.
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