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  • Katherine Mangan

Dartmouth Dropped a Shaky Cheating Investigation, but Concerns Over Digital Surveillance Remain

Students protest at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine after administrators accused 17 of their classmates of cheating.

Last week’s decision by Dartmouth College’s medical dean to dismiss charges against 17 students accused of cheating during remote exams was just the latest case in which the use of surveillance technology came back to bite colleges that increasingly relied on it during the pandemic.

Electronic monitoring tools sometimes flag normal behavior as cheating.

The students had faced sanctions including course failure, suspension, and expulsion after a deep dive into data from the college’s learning-management system, Canvas, persuaded the school that students had been looking up class materials during closed-book exams. The problem, which The New York Times discovered and wrote about last month, is that Canvas can automatically generate activity data on devices even when no one is using them. So while a few students may actually have been cheating, others may have had no idea that Canvas was refreshing on their cellphones or iPads, pinging “evidence” that they were sneaking a peek at the answers.

In an email sent to the campus on Wednesday, Duane A. Compton, dean of the Geisel School of Medicine, wrote that “upon further review and based on new information received from our learning management system provider,” all honor-code charges against the students were being dropped. He apologized to the students, who had taken to social media to anonymously describe the emotional toll the accusations and the potential threats to their ability to practice medicine had taken on them. Some students even protested the investigation in person.

No one is suggesting that cheating isn’t happening at colleges that had to move exams online. No matter how much instructors lecture about academic integrity, some students will be tempted to open course materials during closed-book tests when no one is watching. Colleges, including Dartmouth, have turned to a variety of technological tools to lock down browsers during exams. Some go further, using proctoring services that scan a person’s room and monitor eye movements for signs of cheating.

The problem, as Dartmouth’s case illustrated, is that those tools sometimes flag normal behavior as cheating, and the consequences for students can be dire. Even before the pandemic, colleges were starting to use increasingly invasive techniques to monitor student behavior, prompted by worries over school shootings and campus rapes and facilitated by a widening array of available technology. As concerns over Covid-19 spread, biometric sensors were introduced that allowed campuses to monitor building density, as well as student temperatures and heart rates. Some students and digital-rights groups have pushed back against what they see as an unwelcome intrusion that will likely live on even after the pandemic is over. In a news release sent Thursday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights group, contended that Dartmouth’s probe “is part and parcel of a larger problem: educators using the pandemic as an excuse to comb for evidence of cheating in places that are far outside their technical expertise. Proctoring tools and investigations like this one flag students based on flawed metrics and misunderstandings of technical processes, rather than concrete evidence of misconduct.”

Backlash against online proctoring systems has prompted some colleges to discontinue their use. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced in January that it will stop using Proctorio software after the summer 2021 term. In September, Brown University apologized to students for threatening them with disciplinary sanctions for supposedly violating Covid restrictions by being in Providence when they had said they were attending remotely. The university had relied, in part, on evidence that the students had accessed private university electronic services or secure networks from the Providence area, had entered campus buildings, or been seen by other members of the community, a Brown spokesman told The Chronicle. The charges were dropped when Brown learned the students weren’t nearby.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education called out the Dartmouth controversy as another case in which a university “appeared to gravely misunderstand, or willfully ignore, the highly complicated data it used as the basis of its accusations against the students.”

Dartmouth officials declined further comment, citing student privacy. But in his statement last week, Compton said the students’ academic transcripts won’t include any reference to the proceedings. The medical school, he said, is providing resources to support the affected students and help them maintain their academic and professional progress. It will also review how cases are adjudicated. Students had complained that they were given less than 48 hours to respond to the charges and were advised that they’d be treated less harshly if they pleaded guilty, even when they said they hadn’t cheated.

“As we look to the future, we must ensure fairness in our honor code review process, especially in an academic environment that includes more remote learning,” Compton wrote. “In particular, we must ensure our processes live up to our high standards when it comes to maintaining academic honor and integrity. We will learn from this and we will do better.”

As first steps toward rebuilding trust that Compton conceded has been lost among some students, a medical-school committee will consider open-book exams in pre-clinical courses and more in-person exams in the coming academic year.

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