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FIRE and EFF: Tech companies must act now to stem tide of ‘flimsy’ e-cheating allegations

And what you should do if you’re falsely accused
  • New guidance from the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains why e-learning platforms like Canvas and Blackboard may not reliably show cheating.
  • Includes: What to do and ask for if you’re accused, and a form letter you can send to your school.
  • FIRE and EFF call on e-learning companies to be transparent about data.

FIRE and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are monitoring with growing concern an influx of electronic cheating cases as classes and examinations have moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic. Colleges and universities have particularly struggled with proctoring remote exams in a way that guards against academic misconduct. But tackling the important issue of potential student cheating has led some colleges down dubious paths. These include colleges following trails of supposed digital breadcrumbs to misleading conclusions, as well as cherry-picking isolated entries from data logs that appear damning at first glance. 

But as EFF explains, data logs from popular e-learning platforms like Canvas and Blackboard may not be the reliable indicators of cheating that they may appear at first blush. Canvas’s parent company, Instructure, has said as much, warning that their logs shouldn’t be used as proxy proctors, because not every logged access reflects purposeful access by a student. They may, for example, show computer-generated syncing that merely mimics student access. 

Given the rising number of cases FIRE and EFF are seeing, companies like Canvas are acting too slowly and too conservatively to meaningfully address this rapidly emerging issue — with disastrous and permanent consequences for students in the meantime.

But administrators using the software to evaluate cheating allegations don’t seem to know about these issues — an ignorance that forms the basis of many of the cases FIRE and EFF have seen in recent months. Worse still, students accused of misconduct (unlike the administrators meting out punishment for it) don’t have access to the full system logs, nor are they at all likely to have the technical expertise necessary to analyze those logs should they need to defend themselves against cheating allegations. This significant knowledge deficit combined with a clear power imbalance is leading to potentially life-altering outcomes for students who may be completely innocent.

EFF — which advocates for digital privacy, free speech, and innovation — and FIRE are now flagging this critical issue for e-learning companies, asking them to educate university administrators about the limitations of their software when it comes to sleuthing for campus crimes. We’re also teaming up to provide students with basic information about what to do if they are wrongly accused of electronic cheating.

E-cheating cases: Dartmouth and beyond

When the Dartmouth College case hit our inboxes earlier this year, we hadn’t seen anything like it.

This spring, Dartmouth’s medical school accused more than a dozen students of accessing course material on Canvas during remote testing. The students maintained their innocence despite evidence (as Dartmouth presented it) appearing to show an open-and-shut case. Fortunately, at least one of them went to EFF for help analyzing the data: a few data points Dartmouth presented as definitive evidence of academic misconduct. But EFF’s technologists knew fairly quickly it was not so clear cut; instead, they needed the behind-the-scenes Canvas logs — ones only available to Dartmouth administrators — which would show the system’s internal processes and, in turn, allow the technologists to analyze whether the students’ cell phones or tablets might be automatically accessing the material without a student’s knowledge. It’s a relatively common process for these types of systems —  one EFF explains in greater detail on its Deeplinks blog.

Dartmouth, however, refused to turn over that critical information. This refusal, along with allegations some students had been coerced into false confessions, made it a due process case as well, and therefore a matter for FIRE.

FIRE and EFF joined in writing to the school on several occasions, outlining how Dartmouth was denying its students basic fairness in failing to ensure it had sound evidence before accusing them of serious misconduct. Making matters worse — and raising even further red flags — was the fact that Dartmouth also tried to prevent students from talking about what was happening to them by instituting a repressive social media policy just as the controversy was unfolding.

Powerful though it is, however, the Ivy League school was unable to handwave away its increasingly untenable decision to destroy the medical careers of more than a dozen students based on shoddy — if nonexistent — evidence. In June, the dean of Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, Duane Compton, issued a sweeping and unusual apology announcing that all academic misconduct charges had been dropped.  Compton committed to “do better” in the future, and emphasized the importance of “rebuilding the trust we recognize has been lost among some students during this process.” Glaring due process issues aside, the entire imbroglio seemed to stem from the fact that Dartmouth fundamentally misunderstood the limitations or significance of data compiled by the Canvas digital learning platform. 

FIRE joins EFF today in publicly calling on companies like Instructure and Blackboard to prioritize transparency and reach out to administrators to ensure they are not misusing these products at the expense of innocent students.

FIRE also had some success in another case (still private) in which a school appears to have been similarly misguided, disciplining a student — and refusing to hand over full data logs — on the presumption that the surface Canvas data they were seeing was enough to prove the student cheated. Simply explaining how Canvas works was among the reasons FIRE was able to get the school to temporarily stay the student’s punishment and is now looking more deeply into the issue. 

While the cases FIRE has taken on present significant due process issues as well, the golden thread linking this new crop of e-cheating cases appears to be overconfidence and misunderstanding among administrators in the technology now ubiquitous on America’s campuses. Given the frequency with which both FIRE and EFF are seeing these cases arise, urgent action is needed.

In twin posts on EFF’s website Monday, the group suggested a path forward for e-learning companies to stem the tide of false accusations. They also list practical advice for students who find themselves facing unwarranted disciplinary action. 

We’re recapping EFF’s excellent suggestions here and adding some commentary of our own:

Tech companies need to act now

In his post, “The Company Behind Online Learning Platform Canvas Should Commit to Transparency, Due Process for Students,” EFF’s Bill Budington explains that Canvas’ parent company, Utah-based Instructure, knows there’s a problem. The company has stated that program features like “[q]uiz logs should not be used to validate academic integrity or identify occurrences of cheating,” and that Canvas’ access logs should not be used for “high-stakes analysis” of student behavior. But this message — one instance is deep in the instructor guide and another as a response on a message board question — has hardly been prominent and is certainly not getting through to administrators. Given the rising number of cases FIRE and EFF are seeing, companies like Canvas are acting too slowly and too conservatively to meaningfully address this rapidly emerging issue — with disastrous and permanent consequences for students in the meantime.

“Despite the admitted and inherently unreliable nature of Canvas logs, and an outcry by accused students and digital rights organizations, schools continue to rely on Canvas logs to determine cheating—and Instructure continues to act as if nothing is wrong,” Budington writes. “Meanwhile, students’ educational careers are being harmed by these flimsy accusations.”

EFF, which said it did not get a response to its private outreach to Instructure, is now publicly calling on the company “to issue a clear, public announcement that Canvas logs are unreliable and should not be used to fuel cheating accusations.” 

If you are being denied access to data you need to defend yourself or are told you can’t speak out about what happened to you, FIRE wants to hear from you.

EFF also asks the company to give students access to their full data logs, which might exonerate them if facing a cheating accusation. Without access to these logs, currently only available to administrators and — as we have seen — too frequently withheld from accused students, it is impossible to shift the power differential in disciplinary proceedings toward a balance that would enable just outcomes. Access to full logs, which provide the only way to paint a complete picture of how students were interacting with these systems, would at least give accused students a chance at an even playing field on which to defend themselves.

The best solution, of course, would be for colleges to educate themselves on when and how such logs can actually be used, and to commit themselves to avoiding abuses of such information. Because we don’t see that happening independently, FIRE joins EFF today in publicly calling on companies like Instructure and Blackboard to prioritize transparency and reach out to administrators to ensure they are not misusing these products at the expense of innocent students.

EFF & FIRE on what to do if you’ve been accused

Both EFF and FIRE are nonprofits with limited missions. We at FIRE are unable to advise most individual students facing academic misconduct inquiries, but students do have options to vindicate their rights when they are falsely accused of cheating based on sloppy evidence. In his post, “What to Do When Schools Use Canvas or Blackboard Logs to Allege Cheating,” EFF’s Jason Kelley provides useful advice for students already facing a false e-cheating accusation.

1. Get all the evidence

Students are frequently given only a small sample of a school’s evidence in these cases. Students need to know that they can ask for full data logs that go deeper, and contain more useful information than administrators are likely to initially present. No spies will be outed nor shipping schedules revealed to the enemy if students have access to this information; there is simply no justification for keeping it secret here.

“Bottom line: students should be given copies of any logs that are being cited as evidence of cheating, and any logs that may be exculpatory. It’s all too easy for schools to cherry-pick logs that only indicate possible misconduct.” Kelley writes. “Any allegation should start with the student being shown everything that the administration has access to—and we’re calling on learning platforms like Canvas and Blackboard to give students direct access, too.”

2. Make sure your school knows how their software works

As was on display in the Dartmouth case, too many administrators simply don’t know that the Canvas or Blackboard logs they’re reading don’t tell them the whole story. Make sure they are aware that there has been recent controversy over this issue and urge them to look deeper.

Not sure exactly what to say? EFF has language you can use in #3….

3. Send EFF’s statement to your school

If you’re caught in a false cheating allegation, EFF has prepared some form language you can send to your school that outlines the basic problems with these cases and emphasizes your due process rights. 

“While we cannot assist every student individually,” Kelley writes, “we hope this will help guide schools away from improperly using digital logs as evidence of cheating.”

As a nonprofit dedicated to defending digital privacy, free speech, and innovation—including in the classroom, our independent research and investigation has determined that there are several scenarios where course material access logs of e-learning platforms can be generated without any student interaction, for example, due to delayed loading on a device or due to automatic refreshing of webpages. Instructure, the company behind the e-learning platform Canvas, has publicly stated that their logs (both course material access logs and test-taking logs) are not accurate and should not be used for academic misconduct investigations. The New York Times, in their own investigation into Canvas access logs, found this to be true as well. Blackboard, as well, has stated that inaccurate conclusions can be drawn from the use of their logs. Any administrator or teacher who interprets digital logs as evidence that a student was cheating may very likely be turning false positives into accusations of academic misconduct.

Educators who seek out technical evidence of students cheating, whether those are through logs, proctoring apps, or other computer-generated techniques, must also seek out technical expertise, follow due process, and offer concrete routes of appeal to students. We urge universities to protect the due process rights of all students facing misconduct charges by ensuring basic procedural safeguards are in place to guarantee fairness. These include, among other things, access to the full suite of evidence—including evidence that might tend to exculpate the student—and sufficient technical guidance for factfinders to interpret the evidence marshaled against the student. Students should also have time to meaningfully prepare for any hearing. These safeguards are necessary to ensure a just and trustworthy outcome is reached.

4. Can’t get the evidence? Being silenced or coerced? Contact FIRE.

In addition to EFF’s helpful points above, we’d like to add one of our own:

While FIRE does not take routine academic misconduct cases, several recent cases have presented due process or free expression issues landing squarely within FIRE’s mission. We may be able to help in situations where a university or college has denied basic due process rights (for example, by departing from their policies or by refusing to grant access to relevant evidence) or placed limits on freedom of expression (through, for example, gag orders concerning a pending case).

If you are being denied access to data you need to defend yourself or are told you can’t speak out about what happened to you, FIRE wants to hear from you.

We defend the civil liberties of students nationwide, and we’d be happy to take a look at your case and see if we can help. You can submit a case here.

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