Pure academic honesty is hard to come by in a semester conducted entirely online. With the whole Internet just a click away, it’s no wonder that there was a 400% increase in cheating allegations this semester. But is all of the fault on students, or is the design of online education partially to blame?
Chancellor Carol Christ noted that the move to a virtual semester marked an opportunity for UC Berkeley to re-imagine education and continue spearheading innovation. However, few noticeable changes in instruction were made between spring and fall 2020. This is unacceptable, as the pandemic shows no signs of slowing. UC Berkeley has at least one more online semester ahead of it. Higher education must be re-imagined in the virtual space, not just shifted to mimic the in-person model.
Going from Zoom lecture to Zoom lecture is tiring, and the inane amount of screen time has decimated attention spans. Some professors have crafted intricate exams to stymie cheating. Many classes require synchronous attendance, straining mental health and pressing international students to choose between sleep and academic fulfillment. Forcing the square-shaped block of in-person instruction into the circle-shaped hole of online education has created a stressful, lose-lose situation for everyone.
Several professors have relaxed deadlines and embraced flexibility in an empathetic gesture for students this semester. But this pattern has not translated into an official policy institutionalizing academic flexibility. The result is a patchwork of inconsistent policies that do nothing to improve instructor or student wellness. Administration and the Academic Senate have an obligation to step in and truly begin to re-imagine what education, namely online education, looks like at UC Berkeley.
The chair of UC Berkeley’s Academic Senate made several recommendations for instructors to spot misconduct, including registering on sites such as Chegg and Course Hero and utilizing more frequent, lower-stakes tests. But generalized changes to how classes are conducted will not forestall cheating and will not suffice for long-term online education.
The Academic Senate has expressed interest in forming a task force after the pandemic, but this timeline must be pushed forward to assess students’ learning starting this semester. Students should be represented on the task force to directly communicate students’ struggles. Exploring how exams can be shifted to emphasize the application of knowledge, as opposed to regurgitating stacks of easily Google-able information, is also crucial. Some synchronous attendance is important, such as in discussion sections, but lectures should be widely made asynchronous to give students the flexibility they require.
Cheating is obviously bad and not something that students should lean on. But when faced with the startling statistic of a 400% increase, we must pause and take time to understand why people are cheating. The current online academic landscape is not conducive to comprehensive learning, and we can only take so much screen time, so much stress, so much administrative inertia before calling for change.
Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the fall 2020 opinion editor, Katherine Shok.