With online tests and class materials easily accessible during a year of virtual learning, Ohio State students’ desire to cheat might have been the highest it’s ever been — or so the Committee on Academic Misconduct’s 2020-2021 annual report suggests.
Of the 1,112 cases resolved, 92.7 percent found the student in violation of academic misconduct — almost double the 721 cases resolved in 2019, according to the 2019-2020 annual report. Compared to the 2019 academic year, there were almost 400 more cases found in violation of course rules or assignment guidelines, and over 300 more students were found in violation of knowingly providing or in possession of information during exams in 2020.
However, the number of resolved cases is an underrepresentation. The university continues to work through the cases filed in the 2020-2021 academic year, unable to finish most of them by the end of the spring semester, Deborah Grzybowski, chair of COAM and professor in the Department of Engineering, said.
According to Ohio State’s Code of Student Conduct, students violate the code when they compromise the academic integrity of the university or undermine the education process. Examples of academic misconduct include violating course rules found in the syllabus, knowingly providing or receiving information during exams, committing plagiarism and providing falsified materials.
In the 2019 fall term of enrollment, instructors submitted 375 cases, but in spring 2020 with the start of online courses, the number jumped to 730 cases, according to data collected from the COAM office. In all of 2020, there were 1,500 cases submitted. As of July 9, there were 544 cases submitted in the spring 2021 term of enrollment and 21 cases in the summer 2021 term, but the number is not yet final, according to the COAM office.
Grzybowski said the pandemic contributed to the increase in academic misconduct cases due to the stress of online classes, the potential of contracting COVID-19 and the influence of friends who might not have previously been caught cheating. The resources like notes or tutoring websites readily available to help students are also tempting, especially when instructors are unable to monitor students’ actions, she said.
“When you’re in an online environment, and faculty doesn’t have a good way to proctor an exam, or even assignments, and there’s all these resources for students, it’s easy to do it,” Grzybowski said. “If you know your peers are doing it, and they’re getting away with it, then, ‘Why can’t I?’ It’s not the right attitude.”
Grzybowski said the committee is now reviewing cases she filed in fall 2020, either awaiting a decision or the scheduling of a panel hearing — which is when a student disagrees with the charges, so five panelists, including three faculty members and two students, hear the case and determine if the student violated the code of student conduct.
Not every case is the same, Jennifer Whetstone, COAM coordinator, said. Typically, once a professor is made aware of a student’s misconduct, they have one month to report it to the committee.
Once reported, Whetstone said she will review the case to ensure there is sufficient evidence and determine if more documentation is needed, such as missing assignment guidelines. If there is enough evidence to warrant charges, an administrative assistant manually processes the file into a software program, she said. If not, the case will be returned to the instructor and no further action will be taken.
Students will then be emailed the charges against them with the documentation submitted by the instructor. They will have five workdays to watch a video of the COAM process, ask the committee any questions and decide how they would like to proceed, Whetstone said. Then, if the student requests it, a panel hearing is scheduled.
If a student accepts single or multiple charges against them, they can choose to enter an administrative decision –– an option in which the hearing officer will use the evidence and student statement to decide on a sanction, Whetstone said. Students will always have their voices heard, whether verbally at a panel hearing or written during an administrative decision, she said.
“It’s not our job and our goal to fail any students,” Whetstone said. “It’s in your hands, you get to choose what’s going to happen next.”
According to the annual report, around 80 percent of cases in 2020 were resolved by an administrative decision, which Whetstone said she believes was higher than in past years due to more students taking responsibility for their misconduct.
Because of the pandemic, Grzybowski said this process has taken longer, since only one assistant has been working, when there are typically two. The university’s hiring freeze in 2020 prevented the committee from hiring a second assistant after one retired, she said.
“For a year, we’ve been dealing with picked-up cases and reduced people to handle it, so things have been delayed,” Grzybowski said. “That stresses everybody. It’s hard for the students, it’s hard for the faculty, it’s hard for everybody in the COAM office, and that’s not the way we like to roll.”
Whetstone said students who were charged with misconduct in fall 2020 have been notified of the charges, while some students charged in spring 2021 have yet to be notified.
Ohio State announced mid-June 2020 the format of each class will depend on its size and curriculum. Some courses met in person, while others adopted a “hybrid” or “distance-enhanced” approach, and some would be taught entirely online.
The Office of Distance Education and eLearning had four full-time staff and two students who were available to answer questions about Carmen and eLearning tools around-the-clock before the pandemic. Once it started, the office increased support to 68 staff and 27 student-workers.
Gail Martineau, associate director of the ODEE, said in an email the office created an assessments page and several resources at the start of the pandemic — including adapting exams and final projects — as a core part of its Keep Teaching website. Academic leaders pushed the information to instructors throughout the summer and fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters.
ODEE held several workshops on designing exams and assignments for online and hybrid classes, Martineau said. The Teaching and Learning Resource Center also featured many teaching topics that cover academic integrity — including designing assessments of student learning, a positive approach to academic integrity and strategies and tools for academic integrity in online environments, Martineau said.
Martineau added that the ODEE worked with the Undergraduate Student Government in the spring to publish a resource for instructors to give to their students on preserving academic integrity.
As classes transition to mostly in-person, the Drake Institute of Teaching and Learning and the ODEE are still providing professors several classes on the best practices to teach online courses, Grzybowski said.
Grzybowski said she hopes students take advantage of the resources available to them to understand class material instead of choosing to cheat.
“I would go back to think about — why are you here? Are you really here to learn? And if that’s the case, I hope you’re here to learn, then let’s learn together,” Grzybowski said. “If you are struggling, if there’s a concept you don’t understand, please reach out to your professor.”