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The Ethics of Reopening Colleges and Universities

In-Person versus Remote Learning

Within the next month or so most colleges and universities will have decided whether to reopen with in-person classes, online instruction (i.e., remote learning) or a hybrid approach. Increasingly, we are seeing more and more institutions of higher learning turn towards remote instruction fueled in part because of the latest spike of coronavirus cases in many states. The question is: What are the ethical issues to consider in making a decision how to teach in the fall?

The obvious first decision is whether the institution can guarantee the safety of their students with in-person education. I don’t see how. Students congregate in small groups. They live in close quarters. They dine and party together. Try getting them to abandon such behaviors that are part of the college experience. It won’t work. Many will not wear a mask unless there is a tangible penalty for not doing so. Moreover, you can forget about social distancing.

Is it worth risking the health and safety of the student body, faculty, staff, and others in the university community to have students interact with each other, which enhances the learning experience? I don’t believe so. Not in the fall. It’s too soon, not to mention in the beginning of the flu season. Hopefully, by spring we’ll have a vaccine. Even if we do not, we can transition to in-person learning at that time if need be. Perhaps we will have flattened the curve by then, although, I’m not holding my breath.

If we accept that there needs to be some or all remote learning, the next issue is cheating? How can professors be sure their students aren’t cheating in completing assignments, studying, and taking examinations? It should be obvious that there is no sure way to control for cheating. But let’s remember that cheating goes on with in-person exams as well. It’s the very nature of students (and people) to cheat to get ahead if they can with acceptable risk. Remote learning

Research conducted by Dan Ariely and psychologists such as Eric Anderman, among others, produces the following results about why human beings are more likely to cheat:

  • They see or believe that other people are doing it.
  • There are temptations/opportunities (that is, cheating is situational).
  • There is a heightened state of arousal, stress, or pressure.
  • The class rewards performance rather than mastery of the material.
  • The class reinforces extrinsic (i.e., grades), not intrinsic (i.e. learning), goals.
  • Instruction is (perceived to be) poor.
  • When it’s less likely that there will be costs to cheating.
  • They can disassociate their self-identity from their actions.

The key point is that students can rationalize their cheating by saying:

  • Everybody does it. I need to stay competitive.
  • The exams are too difficult.
  • Professors do not monitor virtual exams: I cheat because I can.
  • I need to cheat to get good grades; get a better job.
  • Everyone cheats in society; this is the expected standard of behavior.

The underlying cause of cheating is a changing ethical standard of right and wrong. Today, our actions are viewed through the lens of ethical relativism. Everything is relative to the situation. Cheating occurs because other students cheat and there is a need to keep up. People lie on their resumes to get a better job. Politicians cheat and may even divert funds. Financial executives cheat and even commit fraud with little or no consequences if they get caught.

Douglas Harrison writing in Insider Higher Education makes the following observations:

“Pressure and stress are key drivers of cheating behaviors, and students today are experiencing a lot of both. So, students who feel connected, supported, and encouraged are less likely to cheat. Students are also less likely to cheat when they are invited to demonstrate learning in ways that are most authentic to them” such as “engaging and worthy problems or questions of importance, in which students must use knowledge to fashion performances effectively and creatively. The tasks are either replicas of or analogous to the kinds of problems faced by adult citizens and consumers or professionals in the field.”

In other words, the best way to test what students have learned is to ask probative questions that require subjective answers, not give multiple choice questions that are easily cheated on through group conversions and sharing of information. Using case studies is a good way to go to control for outright cheating.

No system is perfect and remote learning has its unique challenges but we can learn as we go and fine tune assessment while keeping students safe through remote instruction.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on July 23, 2020. You can sign up for our newsletter and learn more about Dr. Mintz’s activities at: Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter .