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Cheating During the Pandemic: An Ethical Dilemma in Academia

Do the Ends Justify the Means?

It’s no surprise to me that many college students are finding ways to cheat during online testing in our COVID-19 environment. According to a survey by Wiley, 93 percent of instructors think students are more likely to cheat online than in person. One-third said they were using some type of proctoring to prevent it. Many colleges and universities moved ahead with online testing without supervision to save money. This is a recipe for academic disaster. Don’t expect students to adhere to the rules of academic integrity during a pandemic. It’s a fool’s errand to do so.

Ethics is all about what we do when no one is looking. Students can and will cheat when exams are not proctored and even then, the vast majority will find other ways to cheat.

According to the Hechinger Report, in one case, a “student” who logged on to take an exam in a pre-med chemistry class at a well-known Mid-Atlantic university turned out not to be a student at all. He was a plant. An impostor. A paid ringer.

Proctors — remote monitors some schools have hired to watch test-takers through their webcams — discovered by reviewing video recordings that this same person had taken tests for at least a dozen students enrolled at seven universities across the country.

But he was in Qatar, beyond the reach of any attempts to hold him accountable, according to proctors familiar with the situation. They could not say what happened to the students who allegedly hired him.

Even with trained proctors watching test-takers and checking their IDs, cheating is up. Before the coronavirus forced millions of students online, one of the companies that provides that service, ProctorU, caught people cheating on fewer than 1 percent of the 340,000 exams it administered from January through March. During the height of remote testing, the company says, the number of exams it supervised jumped to 1.3 million from April through June, and the cheating rate rose above 8 percent. You can bet the cheating rate is way higher than that.

In some respects, whether cheating has run rampant depends on how you define it.  Online tests have also meant a booming business for companies that sell homework and test answers, including Chegg and Course Hero. Students pay subscription fees to get answers to questions on tests or copies of entire tests with answers already provided. The tests are uploaded by other students who have already taken them, in exchange for credits, or answers are quickly provided by “tutors” who work for the sites. Cheating

Is this cheating? Not according to most students. It’s just another way to prepare for an exam.

Though sites like Chegg have been around since before the pandemic, their use appears to have exploded as more tests are given online. Students used Chegg to allegedly cheat on online exams and tests in the spring at schools including Georgia Tech, Boston University, North Carolina State and Purdue, according to faculty at those institutions and news reports.

The explanation by students for “cheating” is that they didn’t know it was cheating. How could they not know that downloading test answers from Chegg websites wasn’t cheating. Their answer is a rationalization for an unethical action: “We have had to endure so much during the pandemic; we’re stressed out.”

A person’s character is revealed when  the going gets tough. For students, it’s not a pretty picture. They operate under the philosophy that the ends justify the means. They seek not only to complete online courses but to do so by cheating, so this rationalizes that the means used to cheat is justifiable because of their goal.

“One student with a pattern of cheating is an ethical problem for that student. Multiple students with a pattern of cheating devalues any grade or degree they might be receiving,” said Steve Saladin, a co-author of a study published in the spring by the Journal of the National College Testing Association. “

When cheating spreads to many students in many programs and schools, degrees and grades cease to provide a measure of an individual’s preparedness for a profession or position. And perhaps even more importantly, it suggests a society that blindly accepts any means to an end as a given.”

I taught ethics classes at colleges and universities for over thirty years. Prior to retiring four years ago, I observed that cheating tripled during that time. The main cause is the readiness of sharing answers on social media and using the internet to find answers to homework questions.

In this regard, Chegg is the main facilitator of cheating. I have an ethics textbook that is used in many colleges and universities. Chegg has taken selected questions from my book and downloaded answers from the instructor’s manual and provides them to students. The fact that these are students are in an ethics class is ironic to say the least.

How do students gain access to instructors’ resources? I can only guess that some instructors give it out or students steal it or Chegg somehow provides it. To say it’s unfair to me as the author of a book on ethics is an understatement.

Cheating by college students gets worse each year because our society has bought into the notion of ethical relativism. In other words, whether cheating is cheating depends on how each person views it. It’s relative to their point of view.

This isn’t the way ethics (should) work. There are commonly accepted ethical values in society we all should strive to achieve including good old honesty. No matter how you spin it, getting the answers to assignments and exams from another source, and not doing work independently, is cheating. Plain and simple.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 11, 2020. You can sign up for our newsletter and learn more about Dr. Mintz’s activities at: Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.