UPDATED: Students raise concerns over an increase in academic misconduct allegations

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On March 13, Wilfrid Laurier University announced its decision to discontinue in-person class instruction and shift the remainder of winter term courses, including final exams, online due to the COVID-19 global health crisis.

Projected dates for students returning to on-campus courses for upcoming school periods have been adjusted by the university over the past nine weeks, and Laurier has since announced that all spring, intersession, summer and most courses in the fall will take place online.

The requirements that are involved in taking online exams, such as the mandatory purchase of external webcams for specific classes and the usage of surveillance software during exams and midterms, have generated discussion and debate amongst students on social media.

Laurier faced backlash earlier this month regarding compulsory external webcam requirements for August online final exams in Mathematics/Statistics courses, citing that the university “strives to balance the need for measures to ensure academic integrity during online courses and exams with the technology and financial realities of our students.”

Many have raised concerns surrounding the apparent increase in academic misconduct allegations that have been issued during the winter exam period and have questioned the legitimacy of these claims during a pandemic.

Yenie Rice, a first-year Laurier Business Administration (BBA) student, claims that she was falsely accused of academic misconduct regarding a final exam that she completed for BU121 in April.

Rice alleged that she previously had issues using Respondus LockDown Browser for other class examinations — which is a requirement for online tests — and has exam anxiety when taking them.

“I’ve had a lot of difficulty with Respondus in the past, specifically for my EC140 midterm. They had literally taken away the requirement all together just because it wouldn’t work on my laptop … I also had difficulty with my accounting midterm, and I got it to work after a while because I guess I just kept restarting the browser,” Rice said.

LockDown Browser requires students to provide a 360-degree video scan of the room they’re writing their exam in, and they are monitored by an instructor for the duration of the examination in an attempt to detect and flag anyone who may attempt to engage in a form of academic misconduct.

“For my BU121 exam, I still had that difficulty. I had to restart the browser about three times, and … at one of the times, the 360-scan that you have to do of your environment, it kind of cut out. It would stop recording, so I was like ‘oh I thought maybe this is timed’ but I hadn’t finished the recording that one time,” Rice said.

“… After that, when I was continuing with the webcam check and everything, it wouldn’t actually allow me to start my exam. So I restarted the browser again, and then, at this time, the 360 [scan] actually worked.”

“… Then I started the exam, did the exam, was a little anxious afterward — like during my exam I guess, just because it’s an online exam and it’s just a stressful environment,” she said.

Rice noted that she received an email on May 4 accusing her of academic misconduct. After providing what she believed to be a reasonable explanation as to why her 360-degree scan didn’t fully work and the context behind her “looking away from the camera” to the professor, she was eventually redirected to the associate dean who would handle her case.

Rice sent further explanation in the form of email screenshots from communication with former professors regarding her issues with LockDown Browser and stated, again, that she becomes nervous while writing exams.

“I know in in-person exams, I do that, I look away from the paper just to get my thoughts together in my head, it sounds really weird but I think it’s just a human nature kind of thing, I think everyone does it,” Rice said.

“But I’m just a little disappointed that that’s not really translating into an online setting. [Laurier says] ‘oh you can’t look away from the screen’ [and] I’m like ‘well I’m going to do it subconsciously, I’m sorry’.”

Rice felt that undue stress was placed on her by the university, as it took weeks to get through the process.

“I’m just overall kinda disappointed on how they’re handling it, just ‘cause it’s taken so long and I just want an answer,” Rice said.

Rice eventually received the conclusion of her case and was not formally penalized for academic misconduct.

Laurier has a formal process in place for investigating cases of potential academic misconduct.

The process is outlined in “Student Code of Conduct: Academic Misconduct,” and states, “The factors surrounding each individual case of academic and research misconduct may vary significantly. As a result, the penalty being imposed should be reflective of those factors.”

These penalties can range in severity from an official warning to failing the examination or assignment in question, to receiving a zero in the course.

According to the Code of Conduct, if the accused person has no prior offenses, “[The] student will be notified of the penalty using the Final Notice of Penalty letter by the Relevant Administrator or Dean.”

“The student may appeal to the Faculty Petitions Committee within ten (10) working days of receiving the Final Notice of Penalty letter. The decision of the Faculty Petitions Committee is final and binding.”

Students are facing challenges brought on by doing exams from home, and many feel that they are being wrongly penalized for circumstances that are beyond their control.

A Laurier computer science student, who requested to remain anonymous, claimed that they were accused of academic misconduct during the final exam for CP372 in the winter term.

“… The professor had provided us with final review notes like one month before the exam, so everyone in the course memorized the notes for the final … the result was we all got [an] ‘A’ in the final and all of our answers were the same because we memorized the notes before exams and wrote it down without using any aid,” the source said.

“I got accused of academic misconduct and the reason was that they had a suspicion that I used some kind of aid. They even checked my video and everything but they couldn’t find anything. So I fought as well [to] give me a retest and I will prove that I am innocent or give me some other option. I ended up with an ‘F’ in the course and as it is a major offense, they gave me academic misconduct.”

The student believes that they were not in the wrong, as 30 members of the class approached the exam the same way, by memorizing the review notes that were provided to everyone the month before.

“I hope if you publish this at least the computer Science department can see and feel how they [are] treating us during this pandemic and giving us a lot of stress,” the source said.

“Spotted at Laurier”, the Twitter account that accepts and posts anonymous submissions from students, has been sharing various statements that echo the unease surrounding these various allegations.

“I’m concerned as to why all these academic misconduct cases are being taken as guilty until proven innocent. Memorizing notes word for word is not anything new for students,” a submission from May 5 read.

Another Laurier student who wished to remain anonymous claimed that a professor flagged an assignment of theirs that resembled a former student’s work and falsely accused them of plagiarism.

“My prof originally gave me an ‘A-’ on our final assignment, but then a week later accused me of academic misconduct, thinking I copied a previous student’s work,” the source said.

“After lots of back and forth between the prof and I, he still went ahead and filed for misconduct and I’ve been going back and forth [with] that department chair, and I shared my side and showed my rough notes and everything.”

The student alleged that their position in the situation was not taken seriously, and felt that they were not treated fairly as a result.

“But he didn’t believe me at all, it seems like from the start the prof and the department chair didn’t care what I had to say or show, it’s like it’s ‘guilty until proven innocent’ for them. I got a huge grade reduction on the assignment and dropped a few grade points in the class and it’s going on my record — the misconduct I didn’t commit,” the source said.

“I know a lot of students are going through this in many courses.”

Laurier issued an email statement regarding the concerns over academic misconduct allegations.

“Academic integrity is a top priority for Laurier and protecting it adds to the value of a Laurier degree. The quick transition to remote instruction necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the challenges associated with ensuring academic integrity, especially in regard to exams and other forms of assessment.”

“The university is working with Teaching and Learning Services and student leaders to address these challenges. It is important to note that the university provides all students and members of the Laurier community with guidelines for adhering to academic integrity and a process for addressing allegations of academic misconduct, including an appeal process that is available to all students.”

With files from Alyssa Di Sabatino, Editor-in-Chief.

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