How Bad Was the Pandemic for Academic Integrity?

The COVID-19 pandemic is now just over one year old. For many schools, this has meant moving to online learning, either in full or in part, and that has raised many questions about how the transition has impacted students and their education.

One of those questions has centered around the issue of plagiarism and, more broadly, academic integrity.

Before the pandemic, research into the subject produced conflicting results, with many studies finding higher rates of cheating in online classroom and others finding no significant change or even that online students were less likely to cheat. It was simply unclear if students that chose online learning were more likely to take shortcuts.

However, the pandemic was not simply a voluntary transition to online learning. For many, it was a hasty transition against a backdrop of a myriad of other challenges for students and educators alike. Students weren’t choosing online learning, they were being forced into it, ready or not, by an ongoing global crisis.

A year later, we’re starting to see some interesting data about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on academic misconduct and, as one might expect, the news has not been particularly good. Most reports have the frequency of cheating and plagiarism rising, often by large amounts.

However, there are glimmers of hope and reasons to take the early reports with a grain of salt. The issue is complicated and, nightmare stories aside, it may not be all doom and gloom for online learning.

Alarming Reports and Raised Concerns

All over the United States and Canada, various schools and organizations have been sounding the alarm on rising academic integrity violations due to the pandemic.

In Bethlehem, PA, a representative sent a letter home to parents warning that “academic dishonesty in all subject areas has increased dramatically in the past few weeks” and called on parents to speak with students about various cheating tools that can be used in different subject areas.

At the University of Houston, cases of academic integrity violations more than doubled during fall 2020, the first full semester of the pandemic.

At MacEwan University in Alberta, Canada, cases of contract cheating increased nearly 10-fold and the number of academic misconduct hearings nearly doubled. Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada, saw a similar doubling of academic dishonesty cases.

However, not all schools saw a significant increase. Miami University, for example, said that there was only a slight increase and that it could be attributed to a new reporting process.

But despite outliers, most schools that have made their data available have reported a sharp increase in academic integrity violations and much of the focus has been on “homework help” websites such as Chegg, Mathway and Photomath, all of which enable students to get help answering questions.

According to one study, there was a nearly 200% increase in the number of questions asked on Chegg during the early months of the pandemic. There is widespread fear that many of the questions being asked were actually exam questions, meaning the sites were helping the students cheat.

That fear was supported at Texas A&M, where hundreds of students were sent an email warning of academic dishonesty and encouraging students to self-report misconduct after a full copy of a finance exam was found on Chegg. Ultimately, 5 students were found to be in violation of the school’s honor code.

But the issues aren’t just cheating on exams. Plagiarism detection service Copyleaks recently released an infographic where they looked at 80,000 papers from 51,000 students and found that students who were plagiarizing were plagiarizing significantly more content.

According to a representative from the company, Copyleaks looked at papers where plagiarism was suspected and found that, where the average amount of plagiarized content was 35% pre-pandemic, just months later that amount rose to 45%. This means that, according to their sample, the students that were committing plagiarism were copying more content after the pandemic took hold.

According to Copyleaks, this increase was seen globally but was spearheaded entirely by high school students. They found that college papers with plagiarized text actually contained less copied material after the pandemic than before.

All of this paints a pretty grim picture but it’s worth nothing that all this data is early and research about the pandemic’s impact on academic integrity will carry on for years. Still, there’s a great deal for schools to think about at this time.

Asking Difficult Questions

All of this begs a simple but difficult question: If the research on cheating in online classrooms was murky before the pandemic, why does the data from during the pandemic seem to strongly indicate an increase.

There are many possible reasons for this. For one, this was not a smooth, planned or desired transition to online learning. Students nor educators wanted it nor were they prepared for it. This introduced challenges on both educator and student side to make this transition.

Second, the pandemic brought with it a slate of other stressors and distractions. Even ignoring the fear of COVID-19 itself, there’s economic stressors, a sudden drop of social contact, a complete change in daily routines and much more. The pandemic brought with it a whole list of stressors that go well beyond education.

It’s relatively well understood that students facing stressors outside of the classroom are more inclined to cheat. In an ideal world, students would be able to focus almost exclusively on education but that’s not our reality and especially so during a pandemic.

One of the challenges educators and researchers will have in the future is determining how much of this increase was caused by the pandemic itself and how much was the shift to online learning.

As we discussed back in 2019, online education will be a key part of learning in the future. Though the pandemic wasn’t a fair test of it. it was a trial nonetheless and one we can learn from and study.

Bottom Line

For most schools, the pandemic has brought with a spike in academic integrity issues. However, it’s unclear how much of that was caused by the pandemic itself and how much of it is the transition to online learning.

There are other questions that will need to be answered as well including why some schools didn’t see an increase while others did? And how do we balance privacy concerns with the need to ensure that testing is fair to all students?

To call these thorny question is to put it modestly, but they are important ones. Online learning isn’t going anywhere and, if anything, the pandemic only further served to normalize it.

However, if online learning is going to become more central to the future of education, one of the priorities must be to understand it and that includes academic integrity. To that end, the pandemic will likely provide researchers with decades worth of papers and studies to compile.