If you’ve been following recent news, it might seem like the world is full of cheaters. Last month, Rick Singer was the latest to be charged in connection with a nationwide college admissions scandal, implicating more than 50 people. Parents, coaches and test administrators cooperated through a network of bribery and fraud to secure the admission of unqualified, upper-class students into the nation’s top universities. Late last year, Bitcoin magnate Sam Bankman-Fried defrauded millions of investors by using FTX customer funds to pay another company’s debts.
Stories like these can test our faith in humanity. But as members of an institution with the reach and influence of Virginia Tech, the Hokie community should consider such incidents a challenge, to commit itself to the promotion of honesty, both in academics and in life. As technology makes inroads in the classroom, the temptation to cheat has never been stronger and the penalties for cheating have never been easier to get around. But the university has one last line of defense in the fight against cheating: an appeal to morality.
On syllabus day each semester, every Hokie is greeted by a familiar statement:
“As a Hokie, I will conduct myself with honor and integrity at all times. I will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor will I accept the actions of those who do.”
Lying, cheating and stealing have academic equivalents defined at length in most class syllabi. Words like “plagiarism,” “fabrication” and the use of “unauthorized materials” have clear meanings and carry strict penalties: at minimum a failing grade, at most, expulsion. But the meanings of words, even solemn oaths, when mindlessly repeated, are easily forgotten.
Last December, 60 Virginia Tech students were accused of using Chegg.com, a homework help site, to complete assignments for their coding class. Regardless of individual circumstances, the sheer number of students involved is cause for reflection. It could be evidence of a class-wide misunderstanding but could just as easily indicate a widespread indifference to the honor code and its penalties, which have become increasingly easy to get around in this digital age.
Chegg answers student questions on demand, well within the time frame of typical college exams. A 2021 study revealed students often submit photos of questions to Chegg taken directly from online tests. Another study in the Journal of Educational Integrity found a 200% increase in questions posted to Chegg.com from 2019-2020, correlating with the pandemic-driven shift to online learning. These figures are telling, but what can they tell us that we don’t already know? College students talk. They share their successes and their failures, often publicly, and some speak candidly about their attempts to cheat. While many Hokies take pride in their work, it’s hard to deny that academic dishonesty is a fixture of campus culture.
The growing prevalence of technology in and out of the classroom has emboldened cheaters. Drew Kellenberger, a senior double majoring in business information technology and computational modeling and data analytics and president of the Undergraduate Honor Council, discusses how the prevalence of technology has influenced academic integrity.
“Everyone knows someone who may have done something,” Kellenberger said. “I think (technology) definitely has affected academic honesty in a big way. We see a lot of cases of people using Chegg or Course Hero.”
Mike Frank, a sophomore majoring in cybersecurity, management and analytics, shared a similar sentiment.
“There’s so many services online that students can utilize to do their work without actually doing their work,” Frank said.
Perhaps most concerning is the emergence of AI writing sites like Chat GPT — online programs that when given the command, will write paragraphs of text on any topic with all the marks of human creation. Writing was one area where cheating had always been a challenge. An individual’s written work was thought to be as unique as its creator — a true reflection of their knowledge, but now even written assignments can be completed on-demand with little mental effort.
“I think it’s going to become even easier for kids to cheat with Chat GPT,” Frank said. “College is just going to become useless. People are going to put the prompt in and get something else to write it for them.”
Currently, no reliable methods exist to determine if a text is AI-made.
What’s clear is that students cheat because they can. Universities can define cheating in the clearest of terms and set the highest of penalties for offenders, but ultimately they are powerless to stop students from collaborating on online tests, using Chegg for answers or forging work with AI. Essentially, our campus operates on the honor system: the only thing that binds a student to honest conduct is one’s personal moral code. If the university wants to prevent cheating, it must do more than define and punish, it must address the moral cost of academic dishonesty and give students a reason not to cheat. Luckily, such reasons are easy to come by.
We often hear of the high value of the Virginia Tech degree. This value is not just a source of pride and prestige, it is an obligation, forged through generations of dependable service by Hokies. People trust our graduates. They trust our engineers to build the roadways and bridges that stand between drivers and death. Farmers look to our extension agents for the latest in agricultural technology and stake their harvests and their livelihoods on our knowledge. When we cheat, we deprive ourselves and the world of lifesaving, life-giving knowledge and break the trust of all who depend on us.
If you are paying for your own tuition, you know the value of a degree in a different sense: in terms of dollars spent, hours labored and days and nights sacrificed in the name of a better life. Why miss out on even a fraction of the knowledge you’ve earned? If your tuition is paid for, consider the people who paid for it — the years of striving and saving, or maybe the oceans crossed in support of your education. When you cheat, you devalue the labor and sacrifice that earned you your education.
Finally, consider yourself. Reflect on what it means if you would rather submit someone else’s work in place of your own. Cheating is the ultimate show of self-doubt — a resignation that your perspective, your approach and the products of your mind are not worth sharing. Chat GPT may seem like a flawless writer, with endless information at its disposal, but it has one blind spot – it is not you. It has not lived a moment in your skin and never will. Your choice of words is the banner of your existence, the sum of everything that you, and you alone, have witnessed. It is a shame to deprive the world of your perspective, and it is far better to speak, even imperfectly, than to be spoken for.
There is a moral cost to academic dishonesty, and it falls both on the cheater and the cheated: the student who breaks the honor code, and all who stand to gain from their learning. Virginia Tech can make students painfully aware of the penalties for breaking the honor code, but only a moral code, instilled and developed in every Hokie, will produce an honest campus. Tech students must be taught that the consequences of academic dishonesty are not merely academic. If the university wants to prevent cheating, it should emphasize principles more than punishments.
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