New approaches to academic honesty in a virtual world

B.C. professors sound the alarm on post-secondary cheating

Gira Bhatt, KPU psychology instructor, and Michael Picard, Douglas College psychology professor, want to encourage honesty in the virtual world of education.(Unsplash/ Christin Hume)

The cornerstone of the COVID-19 pandemic has been learning to adapt to new circumstances. For professors in post-secondary institutions, a new problem has revealed itself — the ease of cheating in virtual learning.

Gira Bhatt, professor of psychology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (submitted).

Gira Bhatt, KPU psychology instructor, and Michael Picard, Douglas College philosophy instructor, recently penned an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun titled “Will the real student, please stand up: Honesty in the virtual world of education.” In it, they write that through integrity and honesty, teachers can be the role models students need.

But in the article, they ask, “Is the student who submits an assignment, a project, an exam online indeed the same person who has done all the work? Is this person the registered student in the course?”

Bhatt and Picard’s idea for the op-ed came from a student of Picard’s who was caught plagiarizing. Although they don’t have official statistics, they say that chatter at both institutions suggests there was a significant increase in cheating and plagiarism in the pandemic’s early months. Picard says a lot of these cases were “opportunity-related,” adding that the number decreased in the fall semester.

“Just a handful of students [cheat],” says Bhatt. “So that gives me hope for [the] future that most students are honest.”

The reasons why students cheat are complicated. But the increase in the early months of COVID-19 was simple: in the chaos that ensued transitioning learning to online, the temptation was at their fingertips.

Michael Picard, professor of philosophy at Douglas College (submitted).

“Because suddenly they could,” says Picard. “Suddenly, they were in a situation where they were taking exams in their room and where they had the textbook right there.”

A number of universities use a controversial software called ProctorTrack to monitor students while taking online exams. The ethics behind using proctoring software or students showing they’re present via webcam for example was discussed by KPU, but to the best of Bhatt’s knowledge, was decided against due to legal and privacy issues. Picard says Douglas made a similar decision.

Halting academic cheating won’t happen overnight. But Bhatt and Picard are hopeful the current tactics they and their institutions utilize will be a deterrent.

Bhatt says KPU is brainstorming ideas to deter academic dishonesty, and they’re leaning towards restorative methods instead of automatically punishing guilty students. Some faculty members employ students taking responsibility for their actions, taking tutorials, writing reflective papers, or having students sign a social contract.

“We have to come up with some proactive plans and ensure that students when confronted with this temptation, they will not get completely lured to that direction,” she says.

Likewise, Picard changed how he gives assignment feedback and meets with students virtually to go over their writing. He says this extra step prevents cheating because he evaluates a student’s work throughout each step, so he understands what the final product will look like. Another deterrent is assigning unique essay topics each semester, so students can’t buy a generic paper online.

Picard says he supports potential legislation that would criminalize “contract cheating” in B.C. Contract cheating refers to students paying outside producers to complete coursework for them. This legislation would punish producers with fines as high as $10,000. It’s unknown how serious contract cheating is in B.C., but the issue exists due to demand. Picard hopes this legislation would create a meaningful change in academia.

“It really strikes at the heart of what academia is all about,” he says. “If you’re here to learn, then get some credentials and search for truth in whatever discipline, and you’re cheating to get the credentials, it’s blowing out the whole system. It’s completely contrary to everything.”