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Maroon, white & gray areas: Texas A&M investigating academic dishonesty with online classes

Students were reported for using an online study platform that could have provided answers to tests. However, the use of such sites appears to be a gray area.

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M is investigating after increased reports of academic dishonesty within online classes. The investigation involves the use of online study platforms like Chegg. However, the Aggie Honors System said there is a lot of gray area when it comes to matters like these.

While the fall 2020 semester wasn't A&M's first rodeo with online classes, Dr. Timothy Powers, who serves as director of the Aggie Honor System at Texas A&M University, said they've seen an increase in reports since last spring.

"In the spring, when we went online, we had very few reports of academic misconduct," Dr. Powers said. "However, the fall has presented a different set of challenges for us."

Dr. Powers said the university's caseload has increased significantly this semester. There have been many reports of Texas A&M students using online study platforms like Chegg.

Chegg is a website where college students can find study tools for their specific classes. Students can upload flash cards, study questions and sometimes actual test questions. This can leave room for students to share test information for peers who haven't taken those specific tests yet.

This is where Dr. Powers said academic dishonesty could play a factor. “That could construe a response from the university for an allegation of academic misconduct,” he said.

KAGS News reached out to the website. Chegg Communications Manager Devonya Batiste responded with a statement:

Launched 15 years ago, Chegg is a learning platform used by millions of students in over 190 countries around the world to support their studies. All our services, including textbook rentals, online tutoring and revision aids, are designed to support the learning process and have been an invaluable resource to students, especially during the pandemic. We are deeply committed to academic integrity. The vast majority of students who use our platform are honest and here to learn. However, we take extremely seriously any attempts to cheat by a tiny fraction of users.

We take any attempts to abuse our platform extremely seriously, and continually work to develop tools and products to enforce this- including making products available to institutions and faculty, as well as supporting their honor code investigations. We continue to proactively work with institutions to support their efforts, including how to better educate students and faculty on these important issues.

It could be argued some of those online resources are benign, depending on their use. In fact, when it comes to where the line should be drawn, Dr. Powers said it can vary among faculty members.

“The university’s definition of academic misconduct has provided faculty a lot of leeway in defining for themselves what academic misconduct is,” he said.

The Aggie Honor System does clearly define cheating as "intentionally using or attempting to use unauthorized materials that gives a student assistance not specifically approved in advance by the instructor."

However, with increased enrollment in online classes, and different expectations for different professors, these factors could muddy the waters for student judgement.

“Frequently, what we’re seeing is students reaching out to their peers for clarification," Dr. Powers said. "Really where they should be running is to their faculty.”

These information gaps have turned into tough lessons for faculty and students this semester and Texas A&M is working to avoid learning it twice. The university is working out ways to provide resources for students and faculty so everyone is on the same page before the spring semester.

“Every student needs to have some clear guidance from their faculty about where those expectations lie," Dr. Powers said. "We are strongly encouraging faculty to establish and clearly communicate those expectations as well.”

Until that guidance is issued, Dr. Powers wants students who might be accused of academic misconduct to engage with the university.

“Students have a voice throughout this process. Someone that’s making these decisions will listen to and engage them,” he said.

The university's Honor Council is responding to the academic dishonesty allegations it's received. Dr. Powers said the entire process, including consequences, could take months to figure out.

We reached out to Texas A&M for a statement. It reads:

“While we obviously cannot and will not comment on the specifics of an ongoing investigation, we are committed to administering a fair process as outlined in our Student Rules, while upholding the integrity of the degrees awarded by the university.” – Provost Carol A. Fierke

This is a developing story. We'll continue to update you.

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