Monday, September 14, 2009

The Academic Dishonesty Virus

I’m an economist and my typical reading pattern, especially on a weekend when I tend to have more time, is to gravitate first to the major economic news.  But my reading patterns as of this past summer have changed dramatically:  I now look first for news on H1N1.  As is true for almost all of us, there is a measure of self interest in my starting with flu-related articles.  But what motivates me most to look for H1N1 news is the potential impact on the University.  We know from the CDC as well as from state guidelines that the expectation is in most cases for most individuals, that this flu will last 2-4 days and that most people will recover without seeing a doctor.  We have been asked and we will make allowances for students who may miss up to 5 class days with H1N1.  We will make allowances for students who miss regularly scheduled exams (even final exams).  And we will prepare for the contingency that a number of faculty will contract this virus and will not be able to come to class for a few days.  We will do all of this while attempting to make certain the standards are not compromised.

But the reality of this situation is more complex than what can be dealt with by the guidelines articulated above.  The classroom experience is key to learning.  Many faculty now base their grade, in part, on class attendance and participation.  In these cases, if one misses X classes, the final average and the final grade will be consequently lower.  The same faculty who take attendance and class participation into consideration for grading purposes usually make allowance for student illness, typically when proof is provided through a doctor’s note.  But with H1N1 the recommendation is that a doctor be involved only if the illness is severe or if there are serious complications.  Therefore, a faculty member is being asked in cases of H1N1 to accept a significant period of student absence with only the student attesting to the reason.  For many faculty this creates an uncomfortable situation.  Why is that? 

A few weeks ago, I read the results of a recent survey by Common Sense Media.  This was a survey of teenagers, the potential pool for our higher education population.  The survey determined that 35% of teens use their cell phone to cheat.  How is this done: 26% store information on their phone and look at it while taking a test; 25% send text messages to friends asking for answers; 17% take pictures of a test and then send it to friends; 20% use their phones to search for answers on the internet; and 48% warn friends about a surprise quiz with a phone call or a text message.  And what makes this situation even worse is that 25% of the teens felt that actions described above were really not cheating and over 50% admitted that they have engaged in cheating.

Will every student who reports that he or she has flu like symptoms, really have these symptoms?  What if the student reports that he or she has caught the regular flu shortly after recovering from H1N1 and will therefore need to be absent for another week?  How do you handle a situation like this?  The challenge for all of us is to adhere fully to the CDC guidelines while maintaining standards and preventing cheating/academic dishonesty.  Adequately meeting this challenge will test all of us.

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