Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 19, 2021

Academic integrity at Zoom University: Stricter measures are not the answer

By SHIZHENG TIE | December 13, 2020

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BURST / PUBLIC DOMAIN Tie argues that professors can encourage academic honesty during virtual finals by embracing project-based assessments.

Like all prestigious universities, Hopkins places a great degree of emphasis on academic integrity. The Undergraduate Academic Ethics Board oversees concerns of academic dishonesty, and the University uses the Respondus browser, which locks down the testing environment within a designated academic system like Blackboard. 

I am far from the first person to discuss the shortcomings of the Hopkins student code of honor. Many before me have reached the conclusion that only through cooperation between students and faculty can the problematic “cheater culture” be stopped. But years have passed, and the lax enforcement and sole reliance on the honor code continue to challenge academic integrity. 

The threat to academic integrity is even more profound when all learning is conducted virtually. Midterms are administered online, homework is assigned electronically and labs are conducted through a screen. Consequently, it’s harder to ensure the fairness of assessments, which can pose different challenges for students working across time zones. 

Education during the pandemic also poses an equity concern. COVID-19 is widening the gap in higher education by negatively impacting students’ mental and physical health and financial stability; compared to their well-off peers, lower-income students are suffering more academically. 

No test can be administered perfectly in a virtual setting, requiring faculty to decide whether to trade flexibility for possible dishonesty. When a test is administered synchronously, it is unfair to students in certain time zones who would have to work outside of their usual waking hours. Additionally, time limits and lockdown browsers together pose an unfair difficulty for students experiencing internet issues. 

While some oppose the recording of proctoring services on the grounds of privacy, a more problematic aspect of Respondus is that it requires continuous internet support. If the internet connection is disrupted, the browser can sense a network change and automatically submit the unfinished work, adding to the workload of teaching assistants and more stress for students. 

When a test is administered asynchronously, there is inevitably a chance for cheating. The 2013 book Cheating in College alarmingly found that students feel they must cheat if they believe that other students are cheating. Now in 2020, when students in different states and countries are competing against each other in isolation, some may feel they have no other choice but to cheat. 

The fine line between seeking legitimate academic help and cheating is even more dubious now. Copying someone else’s work and looking up solutions on websites like Chegg are definitely breaches of the honor code, but what about searching for textbook solutions before an exam to study? Or looking up a mathematical formula when one cannot produce it at the moment? 

Professors need to admit that a certain degree of academic dishonesty exists in Zoom University, just as it existed before the pandemic. Instead of tightening measures, faculty should pursue more creative ways to assess students’ understanding other than exams. Project-Based Learning (PBL) assessments, like projects or papers, highlight the main concepts of learning objectives and require students to apply knowledge. PBLs are shown to enhance student learning by helping develop critical thinking, problem solving, communication, leadership and collaboration among peers.

As for students, academic integrity is even more important now that exams are virtual. It may be tempting to resort to illegitimate help because of additional stress this semester — from the economic recession to difficulties posed by living at home. However, in the long run, a higher grade and GPA are nothing more than artificial numbers on a transcript. What matters, after all, is the actual acquisition of skills and the pride in pursuing knowledge in an honest way.

Shizheng “JJ” Tie is a senior studying Environmental Engineering from Luoyang, China. She is a Senior Class Senator in the Student Government Association. 

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