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Dartmouth drops charges against med students accused of cheating

An Ivy League school has dropped its investigation into medical students after it accused them of cheating during online examinations.

The Dean of Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine apologised to the 17 students that were charged with cheating in March in an email to the school community.

‘I have apologized to the students for what they have been through and believe dismissal of the charges is the best path forward,’ Geisel Dean Duane Compton wrote in the email sent on Wednesday. 

Dartmouth charged the 17 students with cheating earlier this year based on a review of some of their online activity on Canvas – a learning management system widely-used among universities.

The school claimed that the students – during a closed book examination being held online – accessed other web-based course material at the same time. 

But backlash came from students and alumni, and from the wider academic community, who argued that the data being used by Dartmouth was being misinterpreted, and did not show that the students had cheated.

The Dean of Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine has apologised to the 17 students that were charged with cheating in March in an email to the school community

Using Canvas, professors can post resources and assignments for their students, who in turn can submit their work through the system online and remotely.

The school quickly dropped cases against seven of the students after at least two argued that administrators had mistaken automated Canvas activity for human cheating. 

Now, Dartmouth has dropped the allegations against the remaining ten students, who before were facing expulsion, suspension, course failures and misconduct marks against their academic records that could have ended their medical careers.

The school has now offered 10 of the students who received sanctions in April an opportunity to appeal the decision. 

The decision to dismiss the charges came after an investigation that lasted months, that initially resulted in a Geisel committee recommending three students should be expelled and others receive lesser punishments. 

The students argued that the medical school was misinterpreting the data about their usage of Canvas, which the university was using to track student activity without their knowledge.

Geisel Dean Duane Compton (pictured) apologised to the medical students in an email on Wednesday over the erroneous cheating accusations that could have seen them suspended

Geisel Dean Duane Compton (pictured) apologised to the medical students in an email on Wednesday over the erroneous cheating accusations that could have seen them suspended

This was unusual, as Canvas was not designed to be a forensic tool, according to the New York Times, whose own review found the student’s Canvas activity could automatically generate data – even when not being used.

With the clash turning the Ivy League school into a battleground over increasing school and student surveillance during the Covid pandemic, Dartmouth’s practices were condemned by some of the school’s alumni, along with some of its faculty and other medical students – leading to protests on campus.

In a statement on Thursday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote: ‘It was a process in which Dartmouth appeared to gravely misunderstand, or willfully ignore, the highly complicated data it used as the basis of its accusations against the students.’

Dartmouth’s use of Canvas raised questions, technology experts have said, and while some students could have cheated, it would be challenging for school administrates to be able to tell the difference between cheating and non-cheating. 

That was down to the kind of Canvas data snapshots that Dartmouth used, according to the New York Times.

Some of the accused students said that Dartmouth had limited their ability to defend themselves, being given a 48-hour time limit to respond the charges.

A screenshot of a Canvas dashboard. Students denied accessing the remote learning platform to cheat during exams, and have now been cleared of the charges

A screenshot of a Canvas dashboard. Students denied accessing the remote learning platform to cheat during exams, and have now been cleared of the charges

They were also not given full access to the data logs for their exams, were advised to plead guilty despite maintaining their innocence, and in some cases given just two minutes to make their case in online hearings, according to six of the students and The Times, after reviewing documents.

But in an interview in April, Dr. Compton said that the used by the school school to identify possible cheating were fair and valid, and argued that administrators had provided the students with all the evidence the accusations were based on.

He also denied the claim that those who said they had not cheated were encouraged to plead guilty. 

With the clash turning the Ivy League school into a battleground over increasing school and student surveillance during the Covid pandemic, Dartmouth's practices were condemned by some of the school's alumni, along with some of its faculty and other medical students - leading to protests on campus

With the clash turning the Ivy League school into a battleground over increasing school and student surveillance during the Covid pandemic, Dartmouth’s practices were condemned by some of the school’s alumni, along with some of its faculty and other medical students – leading to protests on campus

But in his email on Wednesday, he took a less combative tone. 

‘As we look to the future, we must ensure fairness in our honor code review process, especially in an academic environment that includes more remote learning,’ the dean wrote. ‘We will learn from this and we will do better.’ 

In FIRE’s statement, Foundation Program Officer Alex Morey said the school needed to introduce policies in order to protect its student’s rights.

‘Dartmouth’s fresh commitment to ‘rebuilding trust’ among the students it unfairly accused in this case should start with promising a fair process to all future students who may find themselves facing a similar misconduct allegation,’ Morey said.

‘When it comes to trust, due process provides it: Giving everyone involved confidence that when a school reaches a result in a misconduct investigation, it’s a fair one.’   


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