A professor wants to fail students for sharing information in an online chat. But has technology changed what qualifies as cheating?


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As students seek to enter a more collaborative world, encouraged by new technological platforms, colleges attempt to draw lines around sharing.

John Kappelman alerted about half of the students in his online anthropology class to their “terrible, horrible, not good, very bad day” last Thursday. The reason: more than 70 people had participated in a GroupMe course, in which information about lab and test responses was shared.

“My disappointment is that the rules of the course are clear,” wrote Kappelman, professor in the departments of anthropology and geological sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. “Students are not allowed to ask questions, discuss or share information relating to exams and labs. “

Because each student had “signed and submitted a course honesty agreement,” according to Kappelman’s email, he recommended that every student in the GroupMe chat receive an F, and he referred the case to the Dean of Students. .

“Faculty have the ability to set expectations for their courses, including what, if any, collaboration or information sharing is acceptable,” Sara Kennedy, spokesperson for the dean, wrote in a statement. Kappelman declined to comment as the investigation continues.

The decision to extend the punishment to every student in the chat raises questions of fairness for those who muted it or never checked it out.

More generally, the scandal highlights the difficult problem of expanding technology into the classroom, students of the Google generation who view the free exchange of information without citation as unproblematic, and faculty members who are wary of the use – and perceived abuse – of new digital tools.

GroupMe, a messaging app that allows users to create group messages of up to 500 members, has become a popular way for students to connect with new classmates or with collaborators on group projects. The app allows users to add people to a group without sharing contact details of added people with the group as a whole – a welcome benefit for students who don’t want their phone numbers to become public.

Some Reddit users who replied to a tweet with screenshots from Email from Kappelman described how they had used GroupMe in their classes. “I’m in multiple class groups and we only use them to ask questions and coordinate study groups,” one user wrote. “I also have them all muted. I would be pissed off if I was accused of cheating because I was in a group that I had never been to.

This is not the first time that students have had problems using the messaging app. Ohio State University and Louisiana State University disciplined students who participated in GroupMe discussions in which class information was inadmissibly shared. In 2017, the state of Ohio found 83 offending students of “unauthorized collaboration” via GroupMe.

“Students are encouraged to use social media tools like GroupMe to communicate with their classmates, but should remember that the rules regarding academic misconduct are the same for online and in-person interactions,” Ben wrote. Johnson, Ohio State spokesperson, in response to questions. on how the university has changed since the 2017 incident. The university makes available to its professors Proctorio, “learning integrity” software designed to detect cheating and other suspicious behavior during exams or homework.

Eric Stoller, a former university consultant on the use of social media and now vice president of digital strategy at GeckoEngage, a digital service provider for colleges, said that while GroupMe provides students with an efficient and semi-efficient way. deprived of connecting, they should beware of its potential to be misused. “I don’t think students can be passive when they join these groups. They should be aware that when bad things start to happen, it is up to them to alert the Dean of Students [or] their instructor.

The misuse of technological tools by students stems in part from a lack of clarity about changing standards after leaving high school, Stoller said. While many students are used to a “turn everything off” policy in high school, colleges tend to have looser rules. In many classrooms, students are allowed to take out their laptops and phones, he noted, giving them access to many platforms.

In addition to GroupMe, students can use problem-solving resources like Chegg and Wolfram Alpha, and databases like Quizlet, which often host a class’s previous tests and homework answers. These digital platforms are not inherently malicious, but they allow students who want to play with the system to “enhance and amplify” their ability to expose vulnerabilities, Stoller said.

David Rettinger, president of the International Center for Academic Integrity, said that advances in digital technology should not alter a common understanding of the principles of academic integrity; the changes simply make it more difficult to determine which principles apply. He compared the GroupMe case in Texas to two college students in a room cheating and a third overhearing them.

“Most institutions would not view this as a violation of academic integrity,” Rettinger said. “If we took this offline and in a face-to-face situation, I would say very few schools would qualify the analogous situation as a policy violation.”

‘How do you know?’

Eric Anderman, an educational psychology professor at Ohio State University who studies academic cheating, disagrees that the situation in Texas is clear. “It’s like when you’re on a jury and the judge says, ‘Take that off the record – you haven’t heard it,'” he said. “Well, how do you know they didn’t hear it?” “

A better way to counter digitally assisted cheating in classrooms, Anderman said, is for faculty members to tailor their assignments and exams differently each semester.

In his classes, he has stopped assigning research papers and instead asks students to complete papers based on an original question that is relevant to that class at this specific time. That way, he knows his students won’t be able to buy a response from an online stationery. It takes more work on the professor’s part, but Anderman, as an academic cheating researcher, said he prefers to avoid irregularities.

Stoller recommended that universities and faculty members strive to bridge the gap between the use of digital tools by students in their academic work and in their daily lives. Digital native students will seek out all available resources to enhance their learning. This openness can lead to a disconnect between the expectations of students and their instructors.

For Rettinger, this tension stems from the traditional focus of higher education on developing an individual’s skills and knowledge, on the one hand, and the increasingly collaborative and shared nature of the workplace and of the world in general, on the other hand.

“We need to adapt what we see as high integrity work to match our cultural changes,” he said. “It’s really important for us as educators to help students understand that not only do you need collaborative skills to work in a collaborative world, but you also need individual skills to bring to that collaboration. . “

As technology evolves, faculty members will need to adapt their expectations of how students work and how the tools at their disposal will shape that work, Rettinger said. Higher education has already resisted technological change, incorporating advances in its process. The key to keeping higher education at the forefront of innovation, he said, is “to scaffold learning on available technology rather than fighting technology.”

Wesley Jenkins is a writing intern at The Chronicle. Follow him on twitter @_wesjenks, or email him at [email protected]



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