from the this-is-dumber-than-it-looks dept
The NY Times had an incredible story a few days ago about an apparent “cheating scandal” at Dartmouth’s medical school. The problem was, it doesn’t seem like there was any actual cheating. Instead, it looks like a ton of insane paranoia and an overreliance on surveillance technology by an administration which shouldn’t be in the business of educating kindergarteners, let alone med students. We’ve had a few posts about the rise of surveillance technology in schools, and its many downsides — and those really ramped up during the pandemic, as students were often taking exams from home.
So much of the paranoia is based on the silly belief that if you don’t have everything crammed totally into your head, you haven’t actually learned anything. Out here in the real world, it seems like a more sensible realization is that if you teach people how they can look up the necessary details when they need them, you’ve probably done a good job. Yes, there may be some exceptions and some scenarios where full knowledge is important. But for most things, the ability to know how to find the right answer is a lot more important than making sure trivial details are all remembered and can be regurgitated on an exam. Indeed, studies have shown repeatedly, that trying to cram the details into your head for an exam often means they don’t stick in long term memory.
In short, this type of insane test taking tests people on exactly the wrong thing, and instead encourages the kind of behavior that leads to worse outcomes in the long run.
But the situation at Dartmouth is — believe it or not — even dumber. 17 Dartmouth medical students have been accused of cheating — but those accusations were based on a tool that is not designed to spot cheating. It was based on Canvas, a popular platform for professors to post assignments and for students to submit homework through. And here’s what happened, according to the NY Times:
To hinder online cheating, Geisel requires students to turn on ExamSoft ? a separate tool that prevents them from looking up study materials during tests ? on the laptop or tablet on which they take exams. The school also requires students to keep a backup device nearby. The faculty member?s report made administrators concerned that some students may have used their backup device to look at course material on Canvas while taking tests on their primary device.
Geisel?s Committee on Student Performance and Conduct, a faculty group with student members that investigates academic integrity cases, then asked the school?s technology staff to audit Canvas activity during 18 remote exams that all first- and second-year students had taken during the academic year. The review looked at more than 3,000 exams since last fall.
The tech staff then developed a system to recognize online activity patterns that might signal cheating, said Sean McNamara, Dartmouth?s senior director of information security. The pattern typically showed activity on a Canvas course home page ? on, say, neurology ? during an exam followed by activity on a Canvas study page, like a practice quiz, related to the test question.
?You see that pattern of essentially a human reading the content and selecting where they?re going on the page,? Mr. McNamara said. ?The data is very clear in describing that behavior.?
The audit identified 38 potential cheating cases. But the committee quickly eliminated some of those because one professor had directed students to use Canvas, Dr. Compton said.
In emails sent in mid-March, the committee told the 17 accused students that an analysis showed they had been active on relevant Canvas pages during one or more exams. The emails contained spreadsheets with the exam?s name, the test question number, time stamps and the names of Canvas pages that showed online activity.
If you just read that, it might sound like at least some evidence that those students were doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing (even if you think the rules are dumb). But, even that seems to not be accurate. There are some of us (and I am guilty of this) who rarely, if ever, shut down tabs that have important tools or information for our work. Plenty of students are the same, and likely leave Canvas open all the time. And that’s what many of the students have claimed.
Geisel students said they often had dozens of course pages open on Canvas, which they rarely logged out of. Those pages can automatically generate activity data even when no one is looking at them, according to The Times?s analysis and technology experts.
School officials said that their analysis, which they hired a legal consulting firm to validate, discounted automated activity and that accused students had been given all necessary data in their cases.
But at least two students told the committee in March that the audit had misinterpreted automated Canvas activity as human cheating. The committee dismissed the charges against them.
In another case, a professor notified the committee that the Canvas pages used as evidence contained no information related to the exam questions his student was accused of cheating on, according to an analysis submitted to the committee. The student has appealed.
The school’s paranoia over this went further. When it confronted the 17 students, it more or less pressured them into pleading guilty rather than fighting their case:
Dartmouth had reviewed Mr. Zhang?s online activity on Canvas, its learning management system, during three remote exams, the email said. The data indicated that he had looked up course material related to one question during each test, honor code violations that could lead to expulsion, the email said.
Mr. Zhang, 22, said he had not cheated. But when the school?s student affairs office suggested he would have a better outcome if he expressed remorse and pleaded guilty, he said he felt he had little choice but to agree. Now he faces suspension and a misconduct mark on his academic record that could derail his dream of becoming a pediatrician.
?What has happened to me in the last month, despite not cheating, has resulted in one of the most terrifying, isolating experiences of my life,? said Mr. Zhang, who has filed an appeal.
The article notes other students were told they had 48 hours to respond to charges — and that they weren’t provided the evidence the school supposedly had on them, while also being pressured to admit guilt:
They said they had less than 48 hours to respond to the charges, were not provided complete data logs for the exams, were advised to plead guilty though they denied cheating or were given just two minutes to make their case in online hearings, according to six of the students and a review of documents.
There are just layers upon layers of ridiculousness here. Not only is it bad pedagogically to teach this way, it’s dangerous to engage in this kind of surveillance (in the middle of a pandemic, no less), and to just build up an entire atmosphere of mistrust.
EFF did a long and detailed post on this in which they note that the data in question could not have shown cheating, and arguing that these students have been denied basic due process.
But after reviewing the logs that were sent to EFF by a student advocate, it is clear to us that there is no way to determine whether this traffic happened intentionally, or instead automatically, as background requests from student devices, such as cell phones, that were logged into Canvas but not in use. In other words, rather than the files being deliberately accessed during exams, the logs could have easily been generated by the automated syncing of course material to devices logged into Canvas but not used during an exam. It?s simply impossible to know from the logs alone if a student intentionally accessed any of the files, or if the pings exist due to automatic refresh processes that are commonplace in most websites and online services. Most of us don?t log out of every app, service, or webpage on our smartphones when we?re not using them.
Meanwhile, the student free speech advocacy organization FIRE has been demanding answers from Dartmouth as well. To make matters worse, FIRE noticed that Dartmouth recently hid its “due process policies” from public view (convenient!):
We also asked why the college appears to have recently password-protected many of its due process policies. Of course, doing so conveniently hides them from the scrutiny of the public and prospective students who might be curious whether they will have rights ? and what those rights might be ? if they matriculate at Dartmouth.
And, of course, all of this could have been avoided if Dartmouth wasn’t so overly paranoid about the idea that medical students might (gasp!) be able to look up relevant information. When I go to a medical professional, I don’t necessarily need them to have perfect recall of every possible symptom or treatment. What I hope they’re able to do is use their knowledge, combined with their ability to reference the proper materials, to figure out the best solution. Perhaps I should avoid doctors who graduated from Dartmouth if I want that.