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Amid Cheating Allegations, Many Dartmouth Medical Students Deny Charges, Question Fairness of Probe


Dartmouth College is accusing several of its medical students of cheating. They say software used to monitor student activity during remote exams identified behavior consistent with academic dishonesty. While several of those initial accusations have been dismissed through Dartmouth's internal review process, several remain, and many of those students deny the charges. They say the software was wrong.

All Thing's Considered host Peter Biello interviewed New York Times reporter Natasha Singer, who has been covering the story.

Peter Biello: Natasha, thank you very much for speaking with me.

Natasha Singer:  Thank you for having me on.

Peter Biello: Lots of colleges and universities have used some form of software to monitor students during exams that because of the pandemic needed to be taken remotely. Dartmouth was using a software called Canvas. How did Canvas enable Dartmouth to identify what seemed to the school like evidence of cheating?

Natasha Singer: It's a fascinating story because Dartmouth actually require students to use a separate software called Exam Soft that locks down the devices they're taking exams on. But they notice that even though the student's primary devices were locked, there seemed to be activity on different software called Canvas, and students are required to have a secondary device nearby. So they thought that students were looking up stuff on Canvas, which is, of course, software platform that millions of students use. And so Dartmouth decided that there was enough evidence of possible cheating of students using this Canvas platform on secondary devices like an iPad while they were taking exams on their primary laptops. But they decided to do this retrospective analysis of every exam that first and second year medical students had taken since last fall.

Peter BielloYou profile a student who is willing to be named Sirey Zhang, a first-year student at Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine. What is his story?

Natasha Singer: Sirey was one of the few students willing to talk to us. This cheating investigation has caused a climate of fear where many students were afraid to give their names for fear of reprisals from the university. And so were many faculty members. And Sirey got this email while he was on spring break that accused him of cheating on one question on each of three exams since last fall. And he was given less than 48 hours to respond. The university provided these kind of data snapshots of what it seemed he was looking up during the exam. And, you know, they were links to campus pages like, of course, home page and information page, an announcement page, practice was page. And so the industry said, you know, you looked up these pages during this question, but they weren't provided a lot of other information that the Canvas, too, would have provided, like how many seconds they were on the page. He and many other students said they told the Students Affairs Office that they hadn't cheated, that they were advised to plead guilty. They said they were told that if they expressed remorse, that it would feel better for them. So he felt he didn't have much choice and he then accepted responsibility. Now he's been suspended.

Peter Biello: How many students actually did that actually tried to show remorse and pleaded guilty because they thought the penalty would be less harsh?

Natasha Singer: I don't know because the university said that the appeals are ongoing and they won't provide us with that information. But six of the students I interviewed, both those whose cases were dropped and those who have now received punishments, said that they were advised to plead guilty.

Peter Biello: And does the school confirm that? That they advised this way?

Natasha Singer: No. The school says that that at no time did the Student Affairs Office advise students who said that they were innocent to plead guilty.

Peter Biello: Mm-hmm. The New York Times is not saying that there was no cheating. The article makes it clear that cheating may have happened. But The Times is raising questions about whether the school was overzealous in its use of the software and that it didn't provide due process to the students accused of cheating. It didn't provide them enough time to process the accusations, among other things. Natasha Singer, what did Dartmouth have to say about its use of the software?

Natasha Singer: Dartmouth said that they proceeded very carefully and examined each accusation on a case by case basis. They told us that they developed this pattern recognition system where that you could clearly see a student during the exam while they were on their primary device, then on their secondary device would go to Canvas and open like a home page, whether it was like the course home page for dermatology or neurology, and then once they hit the course, home page would go to a specific practice quiz or some other information that related to the exam question. And so they said they were very careful and that they were able to distinguish what the computer would automatically do, because Canvas will refresh pages that are open, even if nobody's using the device, that they were able to distinguish this automated activity from deliberate human cheating. The issue is, though, that we, my colleague Aaron, who's a software engineer at The New York Times, studied the code, the software code for campus, and he could see that there were a number of instances in which Canvas would automatically create data even if nobody was using the device. And there were a couple other things that suggested that the university's methodology was problematic. One is, in at least two cases, students who challenged the accusations and said, I didn't do this. And you mistook, you know, automated activity for deliberate activity. Those two cases were dismissed. And we even have an email from the university to one student saying, further investigation suggests that it was automated Canvas processes that generated this data, not human data.

Peter Biello: You write in your story, I'll quote you here. Dartmouth's drive to root out cheating provides a sobering case study of how the coronavirus has accelerated college's reliance on technology, normalizing student tracking in ways that are likely to endure after the pandemic. What does this incident say about the use of technology in higher ed to track student behavior across the country?

Natasha Singer: I think the cheating investigation at Dartmouth really shows you the pressure colleges are under and the challenges they face in ensuring academic honesty during remote pandemic learning. It's clear Dartmouth would not have invested all this time and money and looking at every exam that medical students took this year if they didn't believe there was cheating. The problem is that the technology Dartmouth chose was not designed for this purpose. And so it really raises questions about fairness and due process for students not only at Dartmouth, but at many other schools. And we're seeing at many other schools, students are pushing back by filing petitions, asking schools to drop some of the surveillance technologies they're using. And some universities like the University of Illinois have recently said they're going to stop using some of this technology because they don't think it's fair and it has accuracy issues.

Peter Biello: And what about Dartmouth? Is Dartmouth going to make any changes to the way it has been monitoring student activity during exams?

Natasha Singer: Well, Dartmouth already sent out an email to students a couple of weeks ago saying from now on, when they take remote exams, they must turn off campus on every device. So that should reduce the risk of false cheating allegations. But, you know, the appeals are still in process. The dean of the Dartmouth Medical School has sent out emails saying he knows that the investigation has caused increased stress to the campus during the pandemic. And he apologized for that and said they're going to try to reestablish trust and try to do reconciliation. I think one thing that's happened is some students who are not accused of cheating freaked out and were afraid they could be caught up in a data mining dragnet. These students have pushed Dartmouth, now the medical school, to offer in-person exams because they don't want what happened to the other students to happen to them.

Peter Biello: Well, Natasha, thank you very much for speaking with me. I really appreciate it.

Natasha Singer: Thanks for having me.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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