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BU investigating whether students cheated on online exams

At Boston University, officials are investigating allegations of cheating on online exams.
At Boston University, officials are investigating allegations of cheating on online exams.Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe

Boston University is investigating whether some students in classes including chemistry and physics have cheated on quizzes and exams now that they are taking them online, far from campus and the watchful gaze of professors and teaching assistants.

The university has launched a probe into whether students used online resources, such as Chegg, a California-based company that provides tutoring services, to get answers to exams while taking them from their homes, according to BU officials.

The potential cheating scandal has sparked a flurry of messages in online chat rooms and has highlighted a potential flaw in this new, remote learning and testing environment that undergraduates and faculty members have been thrust into due to the pandemic.

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BU spokesman Colin Riley said the matter is under review and the same behavior standards that were in place on campus, apply to online classes.

“The conduct code clearly spells out the university’s expectations and policies, and all aspects of it remain in effect with the shift to remote learning,” Riley said. “The investigation into this particular issue is active and underway."

Cheating has always been a problem for colleges, whether students bought term papers or illicitly shared the answers before a test. But COVID-19, which forced schools to quickly shut down dormitories and shift to online learning, has meant that the tests that professors would have administered in their classrooms and lecture halls are suddenly being taken remotely and with potentially greater access to banned outside help. The new environment may provide students with more opportunities to cheat.

Chegg is a subscription service that offers online tutors to help with homework. For $14.95 a month students can ask the tutors for help by taking a photo of a question and getting the answer and explanation. Subscribers can also search a “database to find similar homework problems,” the company’s website said.

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But the company has also previously come under fire from university professors for helping students cut corners.

Chegg could not comment on any specific investigation, said spokesman Marc Boxser.

“Chegg strongly supports academic integrity and partners with every institution that approaches us as part of their official investigations into these matters,” Boxser said.

Chegg has not seen any relative increase in honor code issues since the COVID-19 crisis began, he said.

It is unclear how BU officials were alerted to the potential rule-breakers.

But on Saturday night, BU chemistry professor Binyomin Abrams sent an e-mail to one of his classes warning them that he had become aware of potential violations of the code of conduct and that there are consequences to cheating.

“We have learned that some of you have used various means, including websites such as Chegg, to get help during the quizzes given remotely,” Abrams wrote. “Doing so is a clear violation of the academic conduct code.”

Abrams went on to say that BU is working with Chegg to “identify students who have participated in this cheating, either directly or using Chegg to view solutions to our questions on our quizzes.”

Abrams, who has been conducting classes these past weeks via video-conference technology in an empty BU lecture hall wearing blue surgical gloves and with a handy stash of disinfectant wipes, declined to provide details but said this situation was an “aberration.”

“My colleagues and I knew the transition to remote teaching would present new challenges," Abrams said in an e-mail, adding that students are under immense stress and their lives have been upended in recent weeks. The faculty has been trying to be supportive but also provide a rigorous academic experience, he said.

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BU is also allowing students to take courses simply for credit or no credit, instead of letter grades, an acknowledgment that this spring semester has been unique and far from ideal for students.

Still, the expectation is that students will behave ethically, Abrams said.

“Online learning presents challenges in conducting assessments that are not the same as in the classroom,” Abrams said. “I’ll leave it at that.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.