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Op-ed: Combatting academic dishonesty cannot happen at the expense of privacy, equity

COVID-19 demands that we re-evaluate traditional approaches to assessment
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ZACHARY KOH/THE VARSITY
ZACHARY KOH/THE VARSITY

Following the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Toronto was forced to close its three campuses and move to a virtual setting for an indefinite period of time on March 16. Students, faculty, and staff alike were handed the difficult task of finishing the semester through online learning. 

However, with the final exam period beginning just two weeks after, the faculty had little time to impose anti-cheating measures, resulting in what the CBC reports as a “perceived rise in cases of suspected cheating.” This raises the question: how important should academic honesty be with regard to online and at-home examinations? 

To answer the question, one should first discuss what academic honesty is and the purpose it serves. Traditionally, academic honesty refers to the notion of upholding utmost integrity and honesty in all the academic work one completes, no matter the circumstances. Without an academic code of conduct, there would be nothing to separate wrong from right in terms of classroom ethics and no standard to distinguish students’ level of knowledge. 

To combat this perceived rise in cases of academic dishonesty, some professors are taking extreme measures, such as forcing students to turn on their cameras for virtual proctoring. However, many students live in apartments and shared housing, and turning on cameras not only infringes upon their privacy, but also the privacy of others around them. 

While academic dishonesty is unethical and should be addressed, it should never be combatted through means that are also unethical. Two wrongs cannot make a right. 

Another scheme some professors have adopted to fight against academic dishonesty is restricting the time allotted for final exams and not allowing students to go back to previous questions. This policy does not take into account the technical difficulties students might face. 

In enacting these policies, professors are assuming that students have equal access to high-speed internet when that is simply not the case, especially in rural areas. These are unreasonable expectations for students who are struggling to keep up with academic and other commitments during these uncertain, trying times. 

In light of the above points, one can conclude that the steps that faculty members have taken so far to address academic honesty are leaving students in vulnerable positions. Given the pressures on students to perform well academically, the onus of addressing cheating in an equitable way falls on the university’s shoulders. 

The pandemic has necessitated a shift in methods in many areas, and assessments should be considered another one of them. Exams were never really the best way to test students. 

I am sure that I’m not alone in experiencing that horrible feeling of remembering an answer right after walking out of an exam room. Some students also experience high levels of exam-related stress. The notion that exams are a good representation of one’s intellectual ability is questionable at best. 

A movement away from rote memorization and toward critical learning has been long overdue, and the pandemic may be a catalyst for just that. In an era of rapid change, universities need to produce leaders and not products of information regurgitation. 

Literature reviews, short reading reflections, and group presentations are all excellent alternatives to traditional exams. Since these types of assignments require presenting an argument or a novel hypothesis, students have less of an opportunity to share answers with their peers or find them online. 

U of T is well within its right to expect honesty and ethical practices from its students. Indeed, academic dishonesty hurts students most of all by devaluing their hard work. However, if the answers to questions are readily available at an extremely competitive institution, it is not hard to imagine why students would resort to such measures. 

There is a need to redefine several traditional academic policies, now more than ever. Otherwise, we can expect to fight two pandemics: COVID-19 and compromised academic integrity. 

Amna Noor is a fourth-year human biology, cell and systems biology, and immunology student at Victoria College. Noor is the co-president of the Cell and Systems Biology Students’ Union.